New progressive groups target legislative races, test state campaign finance laws
Posted February 25, 2018 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 3:20 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — FLIP NC looks like a professional political operation.
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:
Indivisibles NC — Active on Facebook and Twitter, this group describes itself as a collective of 100-plus groups aligned through the Indivisible Guide. There are Indivisible groups across the country, connected in varying degrees to a national group called The Indivisible Project, which is organized as a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit. The North Carolina version doesn't appear to have filed any campaign finance paperwork. Its Facebook page promotes canvassing and other events in North Carolina and Virginia, as well as fundraising updates for the larger national group. No one with the group responded to emails or Facebook messages. Many of the other groups cataloged below are, or began as, Indivisible groups.
Now or Never NC — This political action committee has been around several years. It files paperwork with the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and raised about $36,000 last year. Its treasurer is Grey Powell, a general practice attorney in Raleigh. FLIP NC lists the group as a partner.
Our Shot NC — A political action committee that promises seed money for progressive General Assembly candidates. It files paperwork with the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and raised nearly $63,000 last year. Shayne Thoman is the treasurer, and the group is based in Chapel Hill. It was inspired by Meyer's "Our Shot" fundraising, outreach and candidate recruitment effort, and he said it asked to use the name.
Neighbors on Call — The group's goal is to "elect Democrats to the North Carolina General Assembly" with a focus on door knocking. It has a toolkit for people interested in starting an affiliate. Meyer called the group "a shadow version of the Democratic Party in Orange County" and said it has "mobilized a huge number of volunteers." He said it is all-volunteer and does not accept donations. The group's website lists Andrea Stein and Becca Zerkin as co-founders, but neither responded to emails. The group doesn't file paperwork with the state and says on its website that it does "not have tax status and we do not fundraise."
Team4NC — A group of self-described "North Carolina ex-patriots" living out of state but wanting to influence state politics. The group plans a barbecue fundraiser Sunday in New York City featuring Meyer and a number of progressive challengers running this year for office. Tickets run between $35 and $5,200, and the money will go to Our Shot, which is also covering most event costs. Member Jonah Garson said Team4NC started as a social group, but it plans to file as a political committee to be safe.
FlipNC / Indivisible FLIP NC — One of the more prominent new groups, featuring extensive analysis of state legislative districts on its website in an effort to target Republicans for defeat in the 2018 General Assembly elections. The group offers tool kits and voting summaries and encourages people to participate in door-knocking campaigns. Partners with a number of groups listed here, including Neighbors on Call, Our Shot NC, Durham for Organizing Action, Protect Our Vote North Carolina, Indivisibles North Carolina, Now or Never NC and Kill the Bill. Founded by Amy Cox and Briana Brough.
Protect Our Vote NC — This group appears to be tied to the the Progressive Turnout Project, which is based in Chicago and says its goal is to get Democrats to the polls. The national group says it helped flip 10 state House seats in Virginia last year. A spokesperson in Chicago did not return two phone messages. It's unclear how active the North Carolina chapter is. It hasn't filed paperwork with the state.
Durham for Organizing Action — This group started in 2008 as Durham for Obama, and it focuses on canvassing, protests and lobbying, according to its website. It has a wealth of information online, including a list of companies to boycott. It meets monthly, and Anita Earls, one of the attorneys behind various lawsuits challenging North Carolina's election maps and now a candidate for the state Supreme Court, is scheduled to speak at the group's meeting Sunday. The web page lists no contact information beyond a contact form, and no one responded to two WRAL News messages sent through that form. The group has not filed paperwork with the board. Its website lists 20 partner groups.
Everyone's North Carolina — Meyer described this as a group that coordinates leadership of other groups. Its website doesn't give much detail, and an attempt to reach organizers was not successful. The group doesn't appear to have filed paperwork with the state. Its site lists a number of other groups detailed here in the "groups we admire" section of its website.
Carolina Resistance — A website funded by Progress NC Action, a liberal 501(c)(4) active in North Carolina since 2011. Similar Progress Now groups operate in some 20 states. Carolina Resistance may host the most comprehensive calendar of progressive events in the state, and a number of other groups link to it.
Stronger NC — Organized as a 501(c)(4) but similar to less formal progressive groups. The group offers monthly issue explainers online, through videos and papers. Organizer Cristel Orrand said this is an all-volunteer group with a "minuscule" budget. It finalized its 501 status in February, she said.
RISE Together NC — Described by co-founder Eleanore Wood as "a grassroots club" that focuses on daily actions, such as asking people to call state legislators on particular issues. The group considered organizing as a 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit but decided against it, Wood said. The group does not raise money, she said, and thus does not file campaign finance paperwork with the state. In addition to the statewide group, Wood said there are 13 regional chapters, and the overriding goal is to let state legislators know "we're going to vote."
Stamp NC Blue — Formerly Together We Will NC, this group's website asks people to "Help us target flippable NC districts!" Among other things, the group is sending postcards to registered voters, encouraging them to vote in upcoming elections, board member Heather Hazelwood said in an email. Hazelwood said the group is organized as a nonprofit but is largely volunteer driven and primarily raises funding by passing the hat among those volunteers. Other board members are Amalie Tuffin and Shelley Day.
Kill the Bill — Primarily a website and social media presence geared toward explaining legislation pending in the General Assembly. The site also has contact information for state legislators and abbreviated voting histories compiled from the General Assembly's own website. The site doesn't promote candidates for election and is more like an archive with analysis typically provided by left-leaning nonprofits. Founded and run by Kelly Garvy. FLIP NC's candidate issue sheets draw information from Kill the Bill analysis.
These groups join a larger world of politically active groups WRAL News cataloged in 2013.
Correction: this article has been edited to correct the spelling of one of FLIP NC’s founders.