Big Money Hit Piece

by Jeff Sykes

Following the money behind a recent mailer

The ways in which big money moves in political campaigns these days often fills the average voter with a sense of unease, as if the game is bought and sold long before they get a chance to enter a ballot booth.

And no matter how fired up a grassroots base is for that dyed in the wool candidate their hearts are set on, it seems, especially on the Republican side of the game, that the money machine has it all figured out.

Party politics, especially at the state level and above, has changed drastically in the last few election cycles since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowed unlimited corporate money back into the political process.

The Federal Elections Commission still has rules that limit the amount of money one person can give to one campaign in an election cycle. In federal congressional elections that limit is $2,600.

But a recent direct mail piece issued in the Republican Primary for the Sixth District Congressional seat in North Carolina, and the money trail behind the financing of the piece, illustrate the ways in which money has a habit of flowing around the spirit of the law.

An independent PAC operated by a former Jesse Helms foot soldier made big news in Greensboro late last week with a political attack piece targeting Sixth District Congressional candidate Mark Walker. The card, mailed on April 16, hit Walker for his service on the Greensboro War Memorial Commission, which oversees the Coliseum Complex.

The debate over funding of the coliseum is an annual show in Greensboro, with budget hawks pointing to the perpetual shortfall in operating revenues specific to the venue opposed by boosters who point to the throngs of people who come into the city and spend money around town. This, they argue, increases overall tax revenue and offsets the debt specific to the building itself.

The coliseum director, Matt Brown, is also one of the highest paid city employees, and is often a target of conservative ire given his robust salary.

Keep Conservatives United, an independent political action committee based in Wake Forest, mailed the card. According to their campaign finance report filed April 18, the group spent $18,373 on the piece. The card shows a picture of Walker, obscured by parted venetian blinds, with the bold headline “Hiding from his record of running up deficits and wasting taxpayer dollars.”

In his campaign bio, Walker touts his service on the commission, which is a volunteer oversight board without legislative control of the coliseum’s budget.

The Walker campaign declined to comment on its internal polling numbers, but alluded to polling data as the impetus for the piece.

“In a strange way, I’m proud that the opposition would be so concerned with the new polling numbers to spend tens of thousands of dollars to slander us,” Walker said via his Facebook page. “As far as the piece is concerned, it’s completely nothing but falsehoods. The budget team and the commissioners serve in an advisory role and it is the Greensboro City Council who approves the numbers.”

Several prominent Walker supporters in Greensboro called it “laughable.”

Former Rhinoceros Times publisher, William Hammer, wrote an extended Facebook statement along with a picture he posted of the card.

“It’s very unusual that I get a piece of mail that makes me burst out laughing,” Hammer wrote. “But that is exactly what I did when I pulled an oversized postcard from my mailbox that said Congressional candidate Mark Walker was “Hiding from his Record.”” The post was heavily shared and commented upon, with agreements coming from a prominent Republican couple and the wife of a state legislator, among others.

The founder of a grassroots conservative organization in Guilford County that has endorsed Walker said the card reminded her of then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s last minute attacks on her opponent at the time, Kay Hagan.

“To me it seemed desperate,” said Jodi Riddleberger, founder of Conservatives for Guilford County.

Keep Conservatives United, the group that mailed the card, is the brainchild of former Jesse Helms researcher Bob Harris. Harris started the group in 2009 to support Michelle Bachman against Rick Perry in early right-wing jockeying for position in advance of the 2012 presidential election. Harris has kept the group active, working for several congressional candidates, including Renee Ellmers, George Holding and Robert Pittenger.

Harris has repeatedly endorsed Walker’s opponent in the Sixth District race, Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr., a fact not lost on many who commented via social media about the direct mail piece.

Records show that Harris paid Richmond, Va.-based Creative Direct LLC to produce the card. The finance report also shows a second piece aimed at Walker set to be mailed on April 21. The group spent another $6,400 earlier this month on a telephone poll labeled on federal records as in support of Berger Jr. The poll results showed Berger Jr. with a significant lead in the race.

“If District Attorney Berger can win 20% of the remaining undecided vote, he should be able to win the May 6th primary without a runoff,” Harris wrote about the poll. “Berger’s strong position is good news for conservative looking for a strong, effective candidate with a record of advancing conservative policy goals for the good of the state. Let’s hope Berger supporters will keep working so Republicans aren’t stuck with a liberal like Zack Matheny or a Hong Kong banker like Bruce VonCannon with a record of doing more for China than North Carolina.”

Matheny, a Greensboro city councilman, and VonCannon, a businessman, are considered, two of the more significant challengers in the race.

Keep Conservatives United received one contribution recently, a $25,000 influx from Pita Raleigh LLC, a nebulous company created by former Republican candidate for governor, Bill Graham, an attorney from Salisbury. The contribution was received on April 9.

Keep Conservatives United also made a $5,000 contribution to the NC Values Coalition. The group made several joint appearances with Berger Jr. during the run up to the anti-gay marriage vote on Amendment One in 2012.

A deeper examination of the Keep Conservatives United campaign finance reports shows that several contributors who had made the maximum allowable contributions directly to the Berger for Congress campaign had made large donations to Keep Conservatives United in recent weeks.

Five donors who had maxed out with $2,600 contributions to the Berger Jr. campaign made five-figure contributions to Keep Conservatives United between Jan. 17 and March 19, according to a comparison of FEC records.

One of the donors, Allen E. Grant Jr. of Burlington, gave $10,000 to Keep Conservatives United. His company, Glen Raven Inc., also made a $15,000 donation. The largest donation to the PAC came from Robert Luddy of Raleigh, who donated $50,000. Luddy is a well-known conservative donor who was instrumental in the takeover of the Wake County School Board by conservatives who sought to transform the systems diversity and busing policies following the 2009 election.

Through a campaign consultant, the Berger Jr. team said they had no knowledge of the direct mail piece.

“We’re proud to have such broad support and to have raised more money in this race than anyone else,” said Jay Connaughton. “We are learning of third party efforts just like everyone else, when they become public and are released to the voters.” !