Is this the end of fair elections in Chapel Hill?
Let’s be clear – this is NOT business as usual
Big money politics has come to Chapel Hill. A small but affluent group of Chapel Hill residents is planning to flood our local mayor and town council election with upward of $120,000 to influence its outcome. Why? Because a recent Council vote did not go their way.They plan to funnel funds in support of their hand-picked slate of candidates — Adam Searing, David Adams, Elizabeth Sharp, Renuka Soll, and Breckany Eckhardt. This influx of funds will serve to subvert our local democracy and is a cynical effort to disenfranchise the electorate. How did we get here?
Nationwide, since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case, the influence of money in politics has been an ever increasing concern. At the federal and state levels we have seen how big donors have outsized influence over policy agendas. For instance, here in North Carolina, the GOP routinely ignores majority support for gun safety legislation, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and investment in public schools. They do this because their wealthy, extreme right-wing donors are paying the bills. We should all be concerned about the influence of money in politics at every level of government.
In North Carolina, the campaign contribution limit per candidate or political action committee is $6,400. This means in most races in NC, you can donate to your favorite candidates up to that limit. I think you will agree, for a local race — such as mayor, town council, or school board - that amount is unnecessarily high, and also well outside most people’s financial ability to contribute.
Many years ago, the Town of Chapel Hill had the foresight to try to limit the influence of money in our local politics by setting allowable political donation limits, developed as a reflection of our community’s values. That is why, despite the state-level cap of $6,400, the local cap for individual contributions to mayor and council elections is $357. The 2009 ordinance that created the Vote-Owned Elections program stated, “It is in the public interest that the detrimental effects of increasingly large amounts of money being raised and spent in Chapel Hill to influence the outcome of municipal elections be minimized and that the meaningful participation of all citizens in the democratic process be enhanced.” Recently, winning mayoral and council candidates have raised between $5,000 and $20,000 – a good deal of money, to be sure, but divided among many donors. With this small limit, no one group can have outsized influence.
This is where political action committees or PACs come in. The purpose of a PAC is to raise and spend money to elect and defeat specific candidates. They are a way to circumvent election spending limits, like the ones we have here. While they are legal, they raise valid concerns around the influence of money on election outcomes and disenfranchisement of the electorate. Do we really want to go down this path here in Chapel Hill?
You may be surprised to learn we are already well along our way. Going back to 2015, CHALT formed a PAC called Chapel Hill Leadership Political Action Committee to circumvent town campaign giving limits. Despite their claims that it is grassroots, CHALT founders Julie McClintock, and her husband, John Morris, have contributed thousands of dollars — over ten times the sum that can be donated to an individual candidate.
Now that brings us to this election. As reported by the N&O, a few wealthy residents plan to contribute $120,000 to the CHALT PAC because they are unhappy with a recent policy decision — known as Housing Choices for A Complete Community — by the current Mayor and Town Council to allow duplexes in residential areas with numerous restrictions. This elite and privileged group wants to funnel funds in support of their chosen slate of candidates. Let me say that again - $120,000 for their hand-picked slate. That’s a lot more than the $5,000 to $20,000 raised by most council candidates during an election.
Put differently, each of the donors to the PAC plan to contribute 18 times the individual candidate limit.
To be clear, these 19 wealthy residents believe their opinion of the Town’s direction should trump everyone else’s. The original plan – as reported by Triangle Blog Blog – was to start a new PAC but when that came out in the media, they shifted to contributing those funds to the CHALT PAC.
CHALT has long made baseless — but damaging — claims about opposing candidates being unduly influenced by developers. If donations do purchase influence with elected officials, then CHALT and its new wealthy donors have situated themselves well to dictate the future direction of town policy.
I think our residents are smarter than that. If these wealthy donors truly have the majority of voters on their side, as they claim, why the need to put a very heavy thumb on the scale? Let’s have fair and transparent elections and truly let the voters decide what direction Chapel Hill should take.