The yellow fliers caused murmurs of disapproval among the dozens of candidates and campaign volunteers stationed outside the Forsyth County Building. They plied voters with campaign literature on the first two days of early voting for the primary election last week.
And while the paid election workers shared in the congenial mood, some of the other campaigners noticed a couple things that didn’t quite add up: The flier was embossed with the statement “Paid for by the Forsyth Leadership PAC,” but no one had heard of the committee. And the election workers were telling voters that the slate of endorsed candidates were “the Democrats” when in fact one of them was a Republican.
The candidates on the slate made an odd assortment: Dr. Bruce Peller, a political newcomer and candidate for Congress; Walter Dalton, the presumed frontrunner in the Democratic nominating contest for governor; Linda Coleman, a candidate for lieutenant governor who currently serves as director of state personnel in Raleigh; Earline Parmon, a veteran state lawmaker; Everette Witherspoon, a fast-rising star in Forsyth County Democratic politics; John Gladman, a respected African-American candidate who has never held public office; and Jerry Jordan, a candidate for district court judge and a former member of the county board of elections.
The only hint at the agenda of the PAC was a vague slogan atop the flier: “Supporting leaders of yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
All the candidates on the flier are Democrats except for Jordan, a Republican running in a nonpartisan district judge race. Being nonpartisan, the judicial races appear on all ballots, including Democratic, Republican and Libertarian.
Robert Ewing, a Democrat who is competing with Jordan for the nonpartisan district judgeship, was campaigning with his mother in front of the early-voting site on April 19.
“My mom said, ‘These guys are passing out a yellow sheet of paper and telling people these are the Democratic candidates,’” Ewing recalled. “My mom went up to them and said, ‘Mr. Jordan is a Republican.’” Carissa Joines and Chad Nance observed and overheard the same pitch the following day by two unidentified African-American men. Joines serves as campaign manager for Democratic NC House District 72 candidate Ed Hanes Jr., and Nance has been volunteering with the campaign. None of the three candidates for District 72 were listed on the flier, and so — unlike Ewing — Joines and Nance have no personal stake in the controversy.
One of those handing out the yellow fliers was Ray Herrera, who acted as a surrogate for Coleman at the Forsyth County Democratic Party Convention on April 14. Herrera handed out Coleman’s campaign literature, along with the Forsyth Leadership PAC flier. He declined to comment for this story except to say, “I’m just a senior citizen trying to help out.”
Others doubled the yellow flier with campaign cards for Parmon and Jordan.
Nance said he heard the Forsyth Leadership PAC election workers tell voters three different times on April 19 that the candidates on the flier were “the list of Democrats.”
“One lady asked if there was a list of candidates,” Nance told YES! Weekly. “I said, ‘Inside the board of elections they should have one there.’ He said, ‘No, no we got the list right here.’ He was telling me that they had no lists inside, that they were out of them.”
Joines said one of the election workers, an unidentified African- American man wearing a gray cap, approached her with the pitch.
“He asked if I was a Democrat,” Joines said. “He said, ‘These people on the page are Democrats. When you go inside it doesn’t tell you if they’re a Democrat or a Republican.’” That statement is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. Registered Democrats who appear at a voting site are given a Democratic ballot, and with the exception of nonpartisan judicial races all the candidates are Democrats. Composite ballots for all three parties — Democrat, Republican and Libertarian — are posted in the board of elections office for anyone who wishes to familiarize themselves with the candidates. Voters may also look up their registration at the NC Board of Elections website (ncsbe.gov/ voterlookup.aspx), pull up a sample ballot, print it out and bring it with them to the polls.
Forsyth County Democratic Party Chair Susan Campbell characterized the activities of the PAC´s paid workers as ´misleading´ and ´taking advantage of people who don´t understand the primary process.´
Forsyth County Democratic Party Chair Susan Campbell characterized the electioneering activity by the Forsyth Leadership PAC’s paid workers as “misleading” and “taking advantage of people who don’t understand the primary process.”
“The party has not sanctioned any of these [fliers], and we cannot,” she said. “And I don’t think we can do anything to stop it. We try to educate the voters and say, ‘Research the candidates so you can make an educated decision.’ They’re banking on you not knowing.”
The NC Board of Elections received an inquiry about the PAC on April 19 and began investigating to try to determine who was responsible for the flier. State law requires two or more people who raise and spend funds to support or oppose candidates to register with the NC Board of Elections. Sheryll Harris, a compliance specialist at the state board said her office received a statement of organization from the Forsyth Leadership PAC on Monday.
Heather L. Moore of Winston-Salem is listed as the committee’s treasurer. Her explanation of her motivation for forming the committee is at odds with the reported activities of its paid workers.
“I wanted to show my children that you shouldn’t vote a straight-party ticket,” she told YES! Weekly on Monday. “I wanted to teach them that one person can make a difference. One person can have a voice that’s heard by many.”
A straight-party ticket is not an option on a primary ballot because the purpose of the election is to nominate candidates from each party for the general election in November.
Moore said she heard about the misleading statements on Sunday.
“No one was told to say these were the Democrats,” she said.
“That would be something those workers took upon themselves.”
Chris Church, a Winston-Salem political consultant who has worked on Peller and Jordan’s campaigns, said he is a paid consultant for the Forsyth Leadership PAC and that Moore asked him to help her put it together. Church said he was responsible for hiring the paid workers.
Confronted with the reported statements by the paid election workers at a candidate reception at the Piedmont Club on April 20, Peller said it was the first time he had heard anything about it and expressed dismay.
“If that’s true, it’s as bad as telling people that the election is on Wednesday when it’s obviously on Tuesday,” he said. “If poll workers are being told to say something misleading to voters, that’s unethical, and it’s flat wrong.”
Three days later, Peller told YES! Weekly in an e-mailed state ment: “Following our conversation I have withdrawn from the Forsyth Leadership PAC. I was unable to get satisfactory answers to the questions I posed to Chris Church. It appears that the information I was initially given was incomplete at best.”
Peller said that he had initially considered contributing to the PAC but has now decided against that course of action. He said by withdrawing from the PAC it should be understood that he is asking that his name be removed from the flier.
Ed Hanes Jr., one the Democratic candidates for the NC House District 72 seat, said he noticed that no candidates had been endorsed in his race when he saw the flier outside the earlyvoting site on April 19. Joines, his campaign manager, had been contacted by Church the day before with a request for “face time” with Hanes, and the candidate agreed to the meeting.
“He said every candidate contributes a thousand dollars to cover the cost of printing the flier,” Hanes said of his conversation with Church. “I had no intention of being involved with him.”
Hanes said he was particularly uncomfortable with what he had heard about voters being told that candidates on the flier were Democrats.
“I looked up the PAC,” he said. “I couldn’t find any proof that the PAC was registered. It made me question the legitimacy of the whole thing, especially since they had not interviewed me or found out what my platform was.
“I think it’s abusive to the voters,” he added.“It’s a pay-to-play scheme.”Church and Moore said that’s a misunderstandingof the PAC’s purpose and mode ofoperation, and that the money wouldn’t havebeen the determining factor in the endorsementdecision. Church said he told Hanes thata decision had not been made but that if he wasendorsed he might be asked to contribute somemoney to cover the cost of the fl iers.Moore said she set up the PAC to endorsecandidates she believes in and whose policiesshe supports.
Church said it was he who requesteda meeting with Hanes rather than Moorebecause he happened to be available and Mooretrusts his advice.The vetting process for the potential endorsementcan best be described as unorthodox.“There was no discussion of where you standon things,” Joines said. “The only discussionwas about money and who the list was going to.”Church characterizes the content of the discussiondifferently:
“We discussed a lot of differentthings: His personal background, marketingstrategies….”Joines said Church made it clear to them thatHanes’ name would not be added to the list unlessand until they came to an agreement aboutthe money. Joines said she asked Church whodecided which names would appear on the fl ier.She recalled that Church responded: “There’sa lady who’s in charge of this, but she’ll dowhatever I say.”Church did not deny making the statement,but said Moore retains the ultimate decisionmakingauthority.
“If I point her in the right direction,” he said,“she has every right to override me.”The connection between money and endorsementscame up again, Joines said, when Hanesasked Church if the slate was set in stone orcould be revised.Joines recalled that Church bragged:
‘Yesterday, we hadn’t endorsed anyone in thegovernor’s race, but then I got a call from WalterDalton himself saying, ‘I’ve got a check here for$4,000; I just need to know where to send it.’”Church said he doesn’t recall all of theconversation, but that he never spoke personallyto Dalton and that Dalton sent the PAC a $2,000check, not $4,000. Dalton could not be reachedfor comment for this story.Linda Coleman, the candidate for lieutenantgovernor, said Monday that she is not familiarwith the Forsyth Leadership PAC, and does notplan to contribute.
She added that she would notcondone any activities by her supporters thatdeceived voters or violated election law.Earline Parmon, the candidate for NC Senate,could not be reached for this story. On Sunday,a minivan with a Parmon campaign magnetdisgorged a female Forsyth Leadership PACelection worker with a stack of yellow fl iers. Thewoman declined to give her name or comment inany manner. Church said that he came down tothe early-voting site to pick up his vehicle afterPAC workers had used it to transport a foldingtable. Later, Herrera loaded a folding table intothe minivan with the Parmon campaign magnet.“I asked Earline if she had seen the fl ier,”Hanes said.
“She said, ‘Yeah, but Ed, that’s notmy thing.’ She said the folks had decided not toendorse anyone [in District 72] because the racewas too close to call.”Everette Witherspoon, the candidate for NCHouse District 71, said he had not been approachedby the PAC to contribute and did notknow who they were.While deferring questions about most of theendorsements to Moore, Church took credit forthe PAC’s endorsement of Gladman for NCHouse District 74.
“John Gladman is one of the most dedicatedpublic servants in the African-American community,”Church said. “When Ms. Moore asked meabout that race, I sang his praises for 20 minutes.In my opinion he’s without a doubt the bestcandidate.”Gladman said he did not solicit the endorsementand did not know in advance that his namewould appear on the fl ier.“I don’t approve of any swaying the citizensunder false pretense,” he said.
“I didn’t knowthat was going on…. If they’re taking advantageof uneducated voters it’s defi nitely wrong.”Jerry Jordan, the candidate for district courtjudge, said he had not contributed anything tothe PAC, but was pleased with their promotionof his candidacy.“If they ask me to contribute, I might do thatbecause I can see how hard they’re working,”he said.Beyond the reported efforts to manipulatevoters, election workers paid by the ForsythLeadership PAC have also been caught engagingin illegal electioneering activities.
Joines and Nance observed an African-American man wearing a white shirt outside conferring with another Forsyth Leadership PAC worker on April 20. Later, they spotted the man with the white shirt inside the county building and eavesdropped on his conversations with voters from the second-floor mezzanine. Joines took photographs of the man both inside and outside to establish and document his association with the PAC.
Joines said the man would approach every African-American voter, take their yellow Forsyth Leadership PAC sheet and talk about the candidates.
“People are getting a barrage of information when they run the gauntlet,” Joines said. “He takes the yellow sheet and puts it on top and tells them who to vote for.”
Nance said he overheard the man repeatedly ask voters as they exited the polling place: “Did you get me on that?” State law establishes a buffer zone around voting places in which electioneering activity is not allowed. As required by state law, the buffer zone is set 50 feet from the front entrance of the county building. The prohibited zone is clearly marked with a sign declaring “No campaigning beyond this point,” so it is unlikely that even an untrained election worker would have any confusion about whether they were allowed to campaign inside the building. Under the law, no one is allowed to “hinder access, harass others, distribute campaign literature, place political advertising, solicit votes or otherwise engage in election-related activity” within the prohibited zone.
Some candidates in the adjacent area designated for campaigning take their own literature and place it on top of the stacks in voters’ hands to ensure they make the last and best impression before voters go inside to the polling place.
The practice is perfectly acceptable within the designated area, but in the prohibited buffer zone it gains unfair advantage for the favored candidates.
Coffman, the county elections director, said staff confronted the man in the white shirt, whom he identified in one of the photographs, and two other people on April 20 and asked them to leave.
Illegal electioneering has been a frequent problem, Coffman said, particularly during the 2010 election.
“One guy we threw out said, ‘I’m here for assistance,’” Coffman recounted. “We asked the voter: ‘What do you need assistance for?’ She said, ‘Who to vote for.’ We said, ‘He can’t assist you with that.’” Coffman noted that from the board of elections’ second-floor office it is impossible to see what is happening in the lobby, although a security guard posted at the front desk polices activity there. Elections staff often relies on citizens to report violations of law inside the building.
“I would expect any upstanding citizen to do that,” he said.
Moore said the first she heard about the illegal electioneering activity inside the buffer zone was from a reporter on Monday.
“I will make sure for future reference that they know that’s not acceptable,” she said. “We’re not going to inform anyone to engage in illegal activity…. That was not anything that has been instructed to anyone.”
A native of Winston-Salem, Nance said he was motivated to call out the activities of the Forsyth Leadership PAC by a desire for political reform in his hometown.
“I’m a lifelong and proud Democrat,” he said in an e-mail statement. “This issue isn’t about party or any particular candidate or race. This is about basic right and wrong. We as Democrats cannot point at GOP attempts to tilt elections in their favor with legislation like ‘voter ID’ or putting Amendment One on the ballot in an attempt to drum up turnout if we are not willing to point out the problems in our own party. It is hard to accuse the neighbors of having a shaggy lawn when you are unwilling to get off your ass and cut your own grass.”