@NCCapitol

Governor's race heats up with litigation over TV ad

Posted May 25, 2012 1:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2012 11:18 a.m. EDT

— Pat McCrory's campaign and the political committees behind a television commercial McCrory says is false filed competing legal actions that raise the ante in North Carolina's gubernatorial race.

The Democratic Governors Association and the group North Carolina Citizens for Progress filed a complaint in Wake County court asking a judge to rule the commercial about McCrory's connections to a Charlotte-based business as true and constitutionally protected.

The complaint, which names McCrory and his campaign as defendants, was filed Thursday morning, hours before the Pat McCrory Committee initiated civil action against the two groups. It has until mid-June to file its complaint, according to the paperwork.

"I think they were bluffing. We're calling their bluff," Michael Weisel, attorney for N.C. Citizens for Progress, said Friday.

McCrory and his campaign also have been threatening lawsuits against TV stations that air the ad, which started last week, and asked the Federal Communications Commission to get involved. McCrory is most angry about an accusation that he lobbied for real estate and lending business Tree.com while mayor of Charlotte and three years before he joined the company's board.

"It's a total lie and misrepresentation of the facts. It is deceiving, it's deceptive," McCrory said. "We're going to challenge these ads that are unfactual and that are character assassinations."

Weisel suggested that he would seek to question McCrory under oath in the weeks before what's expected to be a competitive election with Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.

"The facts contained within the ad are absolutely accurate. We stand by them," he said. "There's a past history of perhaps making threats of lawsuits and then not actually doing so because it has its desired effect, which is to intimidate the press and your political opponents, their campaigns."

The competing litigation comes less than three weeks since Dalton and McCrory won their respective primaries. The DGA and the Republican Governors Association have spent more than $1.4 million combined on advertising since then.

The RGA began running another ad Friday, seeking to firm up Dalton's policy ties to Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, who isn't seeking re-election.

Perdue is the vice chairwoman of the DGA and is listed as a likely defendant in the McCrory's campaign lawsuit.

McCrory said he's never been a registered lobbyist for Tree.com. The 2006 letter McCrory wrote as mayor and cited in the ad asked the state commerce secretary to boost state economic incentives to discourage LendingTree, a Tree.com business, from going to South Carolina.

N.C. Citizens for Progress produced the ad but the Democratic Governors Association paid for it. Campaign finance reports show N.C. Citizens have spent more than $430,000 on its ad campaign. The commercial has been airing on Triangle, Triad and Down East television stations.

The group has made some changes to the attack ad, and the latest version clarifies the timeline of events. They said it makes the ad stronger, but the lawsuit still goes on.

McCrory's campaign said Friday the legal matters would be handled by the lawyers and that McCrory is focused on the economy and who is best prepared to be governor.

"We're not going to be sidetracked with a back and forth with a third-party group," campaign spokesman Brian Nick said.

Dalton's campaign lit into McCrory, saying his public pledge Thursday to run fair campaign ads this election rang hollow as the RGA ran another ad accusing Dalton of voting repeatedly for higher taxes while in the state Senate. The RGA has spent more $1 million on running a pair of anti-Dalton ads this month, RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf said.

"For McCrory to stand before the media and call for a clean campaign on the same day that his political hatchet men launch yet another misleading attack is a new low," Dalton spokesman Ford Dalton said.

Nick said the RGA ads are based on voting records, not attacking someone's character.

Campaign rules prevent third-party groups from coordinating activities with candidate committees.

As the McCrory and Dalton campaigns blast away at each other, Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe planned to quietly launch her gubernatorial campaign on Saturday. The Granville County homemaker has run for governor twice before.