New progressive groups target legislative races, test state campaign finance laws
A campaign finance complaint has been filed against one of a slew of new progressive groups that have limited paperwork but are targeting North Carolina legislative races.Posted — Updated
It's got slick graphics, a website and deep analysis of state legislative districts, which organizers are using to target areas where Republicans may be vulnerable and Democrats can chip away this year at the GOP super-majority.
It sells T-shirts and buttons. A 2018 launch party apparently drew 300 people, including Democratic state legislators and the chairman of the state Democratic Party, to an event last month with food donated by as many as six sponsors.
It's got a 28-page toolkit that, among other things, offers a template for publishing voting summaries on Republican candidates with a tagline that says their voting records are "creating a state of chaos."
And, as of this month, it has an attorney: Raleigh's Michael Weisel, a go-to election law attorney for the left.
Weisel said he took on the group, pro bono, to respond to a complaint filed with the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement by the executive director of the state Republican Party. That complaint boils down to this: The group is operating as a political committee without filing any of the paperwork required by state law, amounting to multiple violations of North Carolina campaign finance law.
"There is no way to know who is paying for the events, collaterals or software," Dallas Woodhouse wrote in his 14-page complaint, which is backed by images of gatherings, canvassing materials and official FLIP NC follow-up postcards to voters, all taken from the group's website or Facebook page.
"Who paid for the printing of the postcard?" Woodhouse asked in his complaint. "Who paid for the stamps?"
Organizers Amy Cox and Briana Brough say their group isn't "a formal entity" – at least not yet. Weisel said Thursday that he hasn't reviewed Woodhouse's complaint in full, but he doesn't believe the group has violated state election laws. FLIP NC is not collecting money, and it hasn't been campaigning against specific candidates, he said, so organizers haven't been required to file with the state.
The group's problem, according to Weisel: "These guys were just too good at looking like they had this professional organization."
"They're competent, and they're incredibly hard-working," he added. "But they're just not expending hard dollars from someone. ... They're just folks who want to do something, who are really pissed off about where the state is."
The group is likely to file formal paperwork with the state soon, Weisel said.
That's at least partly because North Carolina is entering a campaign season – candidate filing in congressional, legislative and other races ends Wednesday – which triggers more robust reporting rules.
Trump election spawned groups
FLIP NC is one of dozens of progressive entities that have sprouted up since President Donald Trump's election. Like many of these groups, FLIP NC is associated with Indivisible, a movement tied together primarily by the Indivisible Guide, a field manual for liberal activism published by former congressional staffers shortly after the 2016 election.
These groups are growing in membership and influence. They're active online, networking with each other through shared event calendars and tool kits that encourage people to call politicians on targeted issues and offer how-to guides for reaching out to voters door-to-door. Many, if not most, of the groups are run by women.
"What we have seen is just women coming out of the woodwork," said Pam Hutson, who chairs the board at Lillian's List, a nonprofit that trains progressive female candidates in North Carolina.
Lillian's List has been around for 20 years. Last year, 400 women came to the group and said, "Tell us how to do this," Hutson said. That's as much as the entire previous decade, she said.
Hillary Clinton lost to Trump, women marched on Washington, and then they asked, "What's next?" Hutson said.
Much of that energy funneled into the new groups. Conversations with neighbors turned more political, and personal connections grew into much larger online efforts, according to Cristel Orrand, who helped found Stronger NC.
Stronger NC has seven core leaders, Orrand said, all women and all volunteers. It reaches thousands online with monthly issue training videos and a monthly white paper. In January, they focused on affordable housing. Next month, they're doing immigration and refugees.
It won't take long to tell how effective these and other efforts will be. By and large, the groups are keyed in on helping the Democratic Party break the GOP super-majority in this year's legislative elections.
"This year's the test," said Hutson. "Last year was really about getting women engaged, and this year is really about taking that support to a different level."
'Emerging issue in campaign finance'
Some of the groups, including FLIP NC, may be growing past North Carolina's campaign finance laws as volunteerism turns into something more.
Weisel said state campaign finance laws aren't up to date, and neither are federal ones. Bill Gilkeson, an election law attorney who was on the General Assembly's legal staff for 25 years, said the landscape is changing under everyone's feet.
"When most of these laws were written, the big thing everybody was talking about was television," Gilkeson said.
Orrand's group filed as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization after debating exactly what it wanted to be. She said sometimes all of this feels pioneering. Online organizing and the rise of all-volunteer, but potentially highly influential, groups have drawn a finer line between personal activism and organized political campaigns, and staff at the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement called this "an emerging issue in campaign finance" on Friday.
"This agency will look into any complaints to ensure that groups required to disclose their receipts and expenditures are doing so," spokesman Patrick Gannon said in an email. "We encourage anyone with questions about whether a group is legally required to file reports with the State Board to contact our campaign finance compliance staff."
Marshall Hurley, a campaign finance attorney on the Republican side, said that, despite the growth in online organizing, there's still "reasonable clarity" in North Carolina's rules.
"But I think, like a lot of things, we're in a new age," Hurley said. "They can volunteer their time, but when they start making expenditures ... when they get into candidate advocacy, then they're certainly under the umbrella of reporting requirements if they're spending or receiving money."
Liberal tea party?
As chairman of the House Democrats' candidate recruitment committee, state Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, knows the landscape of these new groups about as well as anyone.
"There's a bazillion pop-up groups," Meyer said. "Most of them are post-Trump, and most of them are run by women."
The movement is essentially a liberal version of the tea party, which grew out of President Barack Obama's election in 2008, he said.
"It is so organic that we were like, 'Holy cow, how can we marshal all of this energy?'" he said. "And what are the legal questions of working with them?"
The FLIP NC complaint has sent shock waves through the movement.
At least one group, Team4NC, plans to file formal paperwork now. The group describes itself as a largely social group of North Carolinians living out of state, yet it planned a political fundraiser this weekend in New York City.
Tickets run between $35 and $5,200, the maximum a person can give per election to a candidate in North Carolina. The money will go to Our Shot NC, a separate group organized as a political action committee and with ties to Meyer.
"We don't hold any money," Team4NC member Jonah Garson said. "But we're playing it safe this year. We know that groups like us need to dot all our i's and cross all our t's."
Other groups are standing pat. Eleanore Wood, who co-founded RISE Together NC, said her group considers itself "a grassroots club." It doesn't want the limitations that come with nonprofits, and it doesn't plan to raise money.
She understands not everyone will believe that.
"I've been told many times that, 'You're a paid activist,'" Wood said. "I still haven't gotten that check. ... We all feel like, if we're not taking money ... no one can influence us, and we can stick to our issues."
As FLIP NC rose in prominence in recent months, WRAL News spent some time looking at the group and similar progressive groups that have started since Trump's election. WRAL also reviewed established groups that these new groups list as partners:
Correction: this article has been edited to correct the spelling of one of FLIP NC’s founders.
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.