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A very expensive race in Senate District 18

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Chad Barefoot has a demeanor that behooves a political aspirant. Bespectacled, with a high forehead, he is 29 but looks 40. And in politics, that's a compliment. The graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he received a master's degree in Christian ethics, appears, in his TV ads anyway, to present a self-assuredness that one associates with a long career in public service.

But Barefoot does not have a long career in public service. Outside of college, his longest stint was the one year he spent working as a policy analyst for House Majority Leader Paul Stam. (He also interned for two summers for Stam.) His inexperience, however, makes him like clay, perfect for sculpting, by the North Carolina Republican Party. With its backing—and that of many wealthy campaign contributors—Barefoot's race for State Senate District 18 could be among the most expensive legislative races in recent North Carolina memory.

The state GOP's elevation of Barefoot, a far-right conservative, as a key player in the next generation of Republicans is part of a larger strategy, one begun in 2010 when the GOP, funded in part by ultra-conservative millionaires such as Art Pope, seized control of the House and Senate: Change the map, buy a few seats and continue, unabated, the conservative agenda of cutting public education, rolling back women's reproductive rights and extending tax cuts to the wealthy.

After calling Barefoot several times to discuss his race and the GOP strategy, and getting no answer, I received a text from him saying his wife had just given birth to their first child. That's a good reason not to return a call. But Stam, Barefoot's boss Frank Williams and campaign treasurer Chris Ayers—an attorney at Poyner & Spruill— did not return repeated calls and emails seeking comment and additional campaign finance information for this story.

At this point in the campaign, the public record reveals Barefoot to be a beneficiary of deep-pocketed campaign contributors, a political insider with a network of high-powered friends who have maneuvered him into a plum position.

  • As Stam's political protege, Barefoot worked for him as a policy analyst from February to November 2011, according to legislative personnel records. He has lived in District 18, in an apartment a half-mile from the district line (at Louisberg and Forestville roads) only since last year. Previously he lived in Raleigh and in Apex, about a mile from Stam.

  • His mother-in-law is Tami Fitzgerald, a former lobbyist for several groups, including the N.C. Family Policy Council and the N.C. Values Coaliton, which led the successful passage of the anti-LGBT measure, Amendment 1. His wife of 18 months, Paige Barefoot, is on the staff of Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell.

  • In January, Barefoot was hired by public relations firm Pioneer Strategies, run by conservative Republican Frank Williams, a Brunswick County Commissioner candidate. Pioneer Strategies does not list its clients—or Barefoot, its director of business development—on its website.

    According to several press releases, the firm began representing the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a pet project of charter schools advocate and Barefoot contributor Bob Luddy, in January, about a week after Barefoot's hiring. Pioneer Strategies has not occupied its Raleigh office, listed at 4617 Western Blvd., for the past two years, according to a tenant there. Of course, Barefoot could be working from home.

  • By June 2012, Barefoot had raised $99,000 in his successful primary run, during which he defeated a strong candidate in Michael Schriver, a 21-year resident of the district who lost to four-term Democratic senator Doug Berger by only 4 percentage points in 2010. His other opponent was former N.C. House member Glen Bradley.

Ayers has ignored Indy Week's requests to view the most recent campaign finance reports—they're not due to the N.C. Board of Elections until Oct. 29, just a week before Election Day. However, other public documents show that in September alone, Barefoot's campaign spent at least $285,000 on 400 TV spots on four Raleigh TV stations. That does not include the additional significant sums spent on more than a dozen mailers sent to residents of District 18.

By Nov. 6, Barefoot could spend more than a half million dollars in a district with 117,000 registered voters.

In fact, Barefoot's expenditures in September exceed what Berger and Schriver spent in the 2010 election cycle in the District 7 race. According to campaign finance documents, Berger raised and spent $206,000 for the cycle. Schriver raised $101,000 and spent $95,000.

And the big push doesn't even begin until October, when Real Jobs NC, funded in part by Pope, is scheduled to begin its onslaught of TV ads on behalf of Republican candidates statewide.

The newly drawn State Senate District 18 changes the political landscape dramatically, and not just in terms of geography. The district originally encompassed Chatham and Lee counties and a sliver of Durham County. It leaned 50 percent Democrat, 22 percent Republican and 24 percent unaffiliated, according to voter registration data.

Redrawn by Republican legislators, District 18 includes Franklin County, which is part of the old District 7, long represented by Barefoot's Democratic opponent, Doug Berger. But District 7 also used to include Granville, Vance and Warren counties, where Berger is well-known. No more: The new 18 meanders through parts of northern, eastern and southern Wake County—in some cases erratically splitting precincts—where Berger is virtually unknown.

And while 18 still trends Democratic (41 percent), it now contains more registered Republicans (34 percent) as well as a large number of unaffiliated voters who will be the target of Barefoot's unprecedented campaign war chest.

It is on those unaffiliated voters that Barefoot apparently is focusing his campaign, particularly in a TV ad that inaccurately portrays Berger as a frivolous legislator. The ad singles out two pieces of legislation Berger had supported or sponsored. One was to ban plastic grocery bags in Dare County. This is not a frivolous bill. Some coastal municipalities in the U.S. have banned these bags because once discarded, they can pollute the ocean and kill marine life.

The second was to regulate barbershop poles. The bill would have charged unlicensed barbers who erected such poles with the lowest-level misdemeanor. I asked Berger about this legislation, and he replied it was in response to constituents, licensed barbers, who saw their unlicensed counterparts using the poles to entice customers. "They felt their trademark was being misused," Berger said. "Licensed barbers have a specific training and service. It was pro-small business legislation."

Barefoot could have chosen other Berger-supported legislation to highlight their differences, but did not: Berger opposed Amendment 1, which Barefoot not surprisingly supported, given his family connections. According to Barefoot's Twitter feed, in July, during the controversy over Chick-fil-A's support of anti-LGBT causes, Barefoot posted a photo of the restaurant logo, tweeting "Eating lunch at Chick-fil-A." Berger also opposes the so-called Women's Right to Know Bill, which would require women considering abortion to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound. On his campaign website, Barefoot describes himself as "pro-life." Berger opposed the fracking bill and supported the original version of the Racial Justice Act.

Barefoot's biggest campaign contributors include Stam, who may be angling for the House speakership. He gave $4,000, the maximum amount, to Barefoot through June. Luddy, who has launched seven charter, private or parochial schools, also contributed $4,000. The state Republican party kicked in another $10,000.

Real Jobs NC, co-founded by Art Pope, will run ads this month in select races. It's likely District 18 will be one of them. Real Jobs has been successful in defeating Democrats, and it knows no depths to ugly politics. In 2010, the group, which supports Republicans, paid for TV ads and mailers in the House District 41 race that portrayed Democrat Chris Heagarty with darkened skin, wearing a sombrero.

If Barefoot defeats Berger, the Republicans will have effectively bought a seat, a vote in general for their far-right agenda and specifically for Stam. Some political observers theorize Stam is jockeying for House Speaker, which is currently held by Thom Tillis. If Tillis were to run for U.S. Senate in two years, also a possibility, it would benefit him to hold on to the speakership and thwart Stam's attempts to wrestle it away from him.

Solidifying Stam's power—and his power base—has dire consequences for North Carolina. We've already seen the roll back of the Racial Justice Act, the passage of Amendment 1 and the gutting of public education, both K–12 and in colleges and universities, under Republican rule.

If you live in State Senate District 18, your vote matters more than usual this year.

This article appeared in print with the headline "See what money can buy."

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