Financing, connections propel Vaughan toward NC Senate

by Jordan Green

‘The thing to do is just work the crowd,” High Point City Councilman Latimer Alexander was telling one of his fellow at-large candidates outside of a reception hall on the grounds of Castle McCulloch near Jamestown on Oct. 9. “Nobody listens to the speeches anyway.”

The annual “Pig, Poultry and Politics” reception hosted by the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition is a must-attend event for those seeking elected office. Two candidates for NC Supreme Court pled their cases. The Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner threaded through the throng. Candidates for school board and county commission contended. Even members of Greensboro City Council, who don’t face reelection until next year, reliably turned up this year.

Despite the low premium on rhetoric, lawyer Don Vaughan took his place in line for the second round of speeches after a bluegrass band stopped playing and the registered guests had made a pass through the barbecue line and turned in their drink tickets. A business-friendly Democrat, the candidate for the state Senate seat being vacated by Kay Hagan was in familiar territory. Individuals employed by real-estate companies and law firms represented by the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, or TREBIC, have donated at least $5,525 to Vaughan’s campaign. If the total seems unimpressive, then the increments — 33 checks averaging $167 — at least suggest a set of relationships marked by mutual ease and assurance.

“Real estate is the beginning of economic development in Guilford County,” said the emcee, a Greensboro lawyer named Tom Terrell who argues zoning cases before the High Point City Council. A sign urging, “Stop the Jordan Lake Rules,” rested on an easel at the head of the candidate line to underscore TREBIC’s agenda. Requirements put forward by the state Environmental Management Commission to reduce upstream nitrogen pollution in the Haw River to clean up the Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to a number Triangle communities, has been roundly opposed by developers, municipalities and manufacturers alike. The estimated cost of the cleanup to Greensboro is $70 million.

Terrell introduced Vaughan at the TREBIC reception as “a real-estate attorney and former city council member.” Favored to win his race, Vaughan served seven terms on Greensboro City Council before losing a reelection bid in 2005. A busy law practice in which he has represented everyone from clients charged with driving while intoxicated to residents from neighborhoods such as Glenwood and Westridge lobbying to block infill development has won him supporters. A consummate insider, the candidate has served on the NC Banking Commission and the board of the state chamber of commerce. From 1993 through 2007, Vaughan acted as a lobbyist in Raleigh for a string of clients, including the National Solid Waste Management Association and what is now the Greensboro Partnership.

Despite being employed as a realtor by Yost & Little, a company with membership in TREBIC, opponent Joe Wilson has attracted little if any campaign-finance support from the industry group. The Republican candidate has played up his inexperience and lack of political connections as an asset.

“I’m not a career politician; I’m not any type of politician,” he told a predominantly African-American audience at a candidate forum at New Light Baptist Church in Greensboro last month. “I’m an average person just trying to take care of people and represent average people that are out there every day. That’s my strength in this thing.”

As of June 30, Vaughan held a 53-1 advantage over Wilson in cash on hand to run their respective campaigns, after raising a total of $89,611. The Vaughan campaign received $22,200, or about 25 percent of its money, from political action committees, including the political arms of the state’s trial lawyers association, the NC Medical Society and South Carolina-based PSNC Energy.

Vaughan plays up his insider credentials, presenting himself as the most qualified candidate to replace fellow Democrat Kay Hagan as an effective representative of Guilford County’s interests in Raleigh. Hagan, in turn, seeks to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole in the US Senate.

“My areas of interest in the General Assembly will be those areas that have a direct effect on commerce and transportation,” Vaughan said during an interview at the TREBIC reception. “Greensboro is known as the Gate City, and one of the areas I plan to work hard on is the completion of the beltway around Greensboro, to help make the Greensboro, High Point, Winston-Salem airport — our Piedmont Triad International Airport — an even greater resource.

“We must properly site the roads, protect the neighborhoods and bring that infrastructure to Greensboro, so we have jobs and economic development,” he continued. “And that’s going to be one of the key assets I bring to the General Assembly. Because in my practice I have represented numerous corporations in our community, and I see growth coming from a lot of those corporations with the new [FedEx sorting hub] at Piedmont Triad International Airport.”

Businesses with an economic stake in road-building and unfettered development have lavished money on Vaughan’s campaign. After law practices, the second and third ranking sectors in the Vaughan campaign’s donor base are real estate-development and auto sales. The political arm of the NC Homebuilders Association has contributed $2,000, while those of the NC Association of Realtors and the NC Asphalt Pavement Association have contributed $1,000 each.

Vaughan hesitated when asked about striking a balance between pursuing economic development through road-building and limiting sprawl.

“How do you define sprawl?” he asked.

He noted his role in supporting the city of Greensboro’s comprehensive plan, passed by unanimous vote in 2003, “to build infill and not have sprawl. People have to have road structures and infrastructure to get back and forth to work. That planning can be done very carefully, and will be under my watch at the General Assembly.”

Vaughan also favors revisiting the Jordan Lake Rules, which are opposed by TREBIC, the city of Greensboro and other Piedmont Triad municipalities. In a comment on the YES! Weekly blog the candidate said the rules “need very careful review to insure that they are not creating an unnecessary expense for municipal water sources.”      

“Our natural resources are precious, and I will treat them as such,” said Vaughan, who describes himself as an environmentalist, in response to a challenge from a member of the Democratic Party’s left wing on the blog.

Among his positions, Vaughan said he supports a lawsuit filed by NC Attorney General Roy Cooper to force neighboring states to clean up air pollution resulting in numerous North Carolina counties, including Guilford, failing to meet federal air quality standards. Notably, a ruling that forced neighboring states to clean up their emissions would impose no cost on North Carolina taxpayers. “At risk,” the candidate wrote, “are a significant amount of federal dollars for interstate road maintenance and improvements.”

Vaughan fits comfortably into the North Carolina business-progressive mold carved out by his party over the past century. He supports the state’s current prohibition against collective bargaining by public employees. Like most politicians in the North Carolina Democratic Party, he opposes allowing undocumented immigrants to attend community colleges, even if they were to pay out-of-state tuition. Like Bev Perdue and Walter Dalton, his party’s respective candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, he pledges to increase teacher pay and address the state’s high student dropout rate.

In that respect, Vaughan’s votes on Greensboro City Council reflect the consensus style that reigned until the 2007 election brought in a conservative minority bloc. The former councilman was part of the unanimous vote to hire Mitchell Johnson as city manager. He voted with the council’s white majority to oppose the truth and reconciliation process, against a living-wage measure and to block the creation of a police citizen review board, and also took part in unanimous votes to close the White Street Landfill and to establish the city’s mandatory rental housing inspection program.

Vaughan deflected any suggestion that his candidacy might be compromised by either campaign financing from special interests or his own lobbying experience.

“Contributions are not going to sway an individual on any particular decision,” he said. “I started working in Raleigh in 1971 as an intern, and I have served on numerous boards and commissions with regard to the General Assembly… I served on the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, which is the state chamber of commerce, and I’ve worked with people in Raleigh for a number of years. Whoever fills this seat is going to have big shoes to fill for Kay Hagan, and they’re going to have to hit the ground running.”

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