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The Meeker File: Checks for Charles From Developers
There's been another, um, "modification" in Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker's campaign fundraising standards. He now takes money from developers.This unfortunate news came to our attention recently in the form of an invitation to join various "hosts" at a reception for the mayor. Price tag: $250 per. Among the hosts: Gordon Blackwell, Greg Hatem, Fred Mills, Roger Perry, Billie Redmond, Carter Worthy and Smedes York.

Developers all, yes? And didn't Meeker say he wouldn't take money from developers? "I've modified my approach just given the realities of political fundraising," the mayor acknowledged when we asked him the question. "I have tried to stay away from people who have controversial projects."

True, Blackwell, the head of Regency Housing Group, is a low-income housing developer, and others who've given money to Meeker (Hatem, Worthy, Gregg Sandreuter) fit the mayor's user-friendlier description of them as "downtown business people" whose projects in Raleigh have garnered general applause. But what about John Kane, whose redevelopment plans for North Hills Mall have neighbors on edge? Or Redmond, one of the principals in the new development scheme for the embattled Neal Coker's tract of land near Cameron Village? (Coker himself is not on Meeker's list.)

"Well, I've modified my approach," Meeker said again.

You will recall that when Meeker ran for mayor in 1999, he set a contributions limit of $1,000 and ruled out taking money from "people who regularly do business" with the city. His operational definition of that term: Developers and their lawyers. Meeker finished out of the money that year, as it were, able to raise a mere $87,000.

In 2001, therefore, Meeker dissolved his $1,000 limit, announcing that he would accept as much from contributors as state law allows them to give (that's $4,000 per election cycle; or, when there's a runoff as in '01, $8,000). Meeker emphasized, though, that he retained his bar against contributions from those regular business-doers.

Not anymore, though. In winning last year, Meeker raised $362,000, mostly via small contributors, with just a handful of $1,000-plus contributors. However, he spent a lot more than that, reaching into his own pocket for an additional $79,000--in loans. Since the start of '02, he's raised another $40,000, putting $21,000 into his campaign till and taking $19,000 for himself in the form of loan repayments.

The desire to repay himself ("Charles would like to see Raleigh grow better," the invitation to the reception read, "and his campaign debt grow smaller") is one factor in the mayor's change of heart. Another is, as he says, the political "realities." Even in '01, when Meeker set a new fundraising mark for a pro-neighborhoods candidate, he was outspent 2-to-1 by incumbent Paul Coble, who had all the development interests on his side.

In that campaign, Meeker supported the idea of lowering the legal limit on contributions to city campaigns. Now, he's suggesting another approach: The City Council could amend its own ethics code, he said, so that a mayor or council member could not vote if the matter involved someone who'd given them more than, say, $500 or $1,000. "Somehow, we need to de-escalate the fundraising," he said.

Meeker says he doesn't know if a council majority would pass a measure of that kind, given the basic 4-4 split in the ranks. Nor has he taken the time to find out. "I haven't talked it around" with the other members, he said.

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