Campaign donors contribute to political dialogue
Under gray skies, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson joined with local activists to unveil a billboard illustrated with the sepia-toned image of a woman’s face and a blunt message ‘— ‘“Play it Safe, Get Tested.’” The sign is part of a campaign to raise awareness of the increase in HIV cases in Guilford County and reverse the trend.
The speakers arranged themselves around a podium stationed in the middle of a parking lot on Lee Street, in front of the AIDS billboard and two others. Attached to the parking lot was the entrance to Fairway Outdoor Advertising’s Piedmont Triad headquarters, which donated the billboard space for the campaign. The AIDS campaign is a collaboration between the Sickle Cell Disease Association of the Piedmont, Fairway Outdoor Advertising and local politicians.
But it isn’t the only campaign Fairway Outdoor Advertising and local politicians have collaborated on this year. Johnson and District 1 representative Dianne Bellamy-Small have both received $500 dollar donations to their reelection campaigns from WS Morris III, president of the Fairway’s parent company, Morris Communications Corp.
Morris lives in Augusta, Ga., far from the jurisdiction governed by Johnson and her council cohorts. Fairway Outdoor Advertising has headquarters in each of its five markets: the Piedmont Triad; Triangle East; St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minn.; Georgia-Alabama and Greenville-Spartanburg, SC. Decisions made in any of these communities that restrict the presence of billboards affects the bottom line at corporate headquarters in Augusta.
‘“We support candidates who are pro-business,’” said Dan O’Shea, the general manager of the Piedmont Triad division of Fairway Outdoor Advertising. ‘“I have talked with every one of these candidates. It is something we do in every one of our markets.’”
O’Shea’s political activities include speaking at Greensboro City Council meetings when billboard issues were on the agenda. He also cut a $150 check for Johnson’s reelection campaign.
Billboards have been a volatile issue on the city council, with votes on regulations often splitting 5-4. In January, both Johnson and Bellamy-Small voted against tying requests for water service to city regulations on development, including billboard regulations. City Manager Ed Kitchen implemented the policy in June against the wishes of the council.
One of the major issues facing the city council is whether to allow billboards on parts of the 44-mile urban loop sometimes called Painter Boulevard. The city passed a scenic corridor law three years ago that bans billboards, but part of the road will be outside the city limits. Billboard opponents want city restrictions extended to the county, which allows a limited number of outdoor advertisements. Johnson described herself as a moderate on the issue of billboard regulations.
‘“I’ve voted for billboards and scenic corridors,’” Johnson said.
In her short speech Friday, she commended Fairway for pumping $5 million into the local economy and for providing 44 jobs. In addition, she commended the company on its social conscience.
Fairway contributes $1.2 in outdoor advertising every year in Greensboro. The company has donated billboards promoting women in law enforcement and the Bennett College gala featuring Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Johnson chairs the Bennett College Board of Trustees and met O’Shea when the two worked on the billboard at the corner of High Point Road and I-40.
Outdoor advertisers are not the only interest groups with a stake in local government and money in the coffers of local politicians. Builders have donated at least $1,600 of the $3,300 District 4 candidate Mike Barber raised in the reporting period ending Oct. 4. Barber has made deregulation of building ordinances a cornerstone of his city council campaign.
North Carolina campaign finance laws only require the reporting of names for donations of more than $100. Three of four of the large contributions listed on Barber’s latest campaign finance report come from builders, including a $1,000 donation from Joseph McKinney Jr. McKinney founded Greensboro’s Mega Builders with Mike Winstead, who unseated Barber in the Guilford Board of County Commissioners race last November. Two other Greensboro builders, Dwight Stone and Wade Jurney, donated $300 each.
Johnson said the contributions would not affect future votes on billboards. Her criterion for approving billboard construction is simple:
‘“If it meets the ordinances we have in place, period,’” she said. ‘“My vote is not for sale. I’m just not like some council members who just hate them.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.