A browse through the final campaign reports of last fall's Durham mayor and council candidates shows that business interests big and small fueled the battle for city leadership positions. Greasing the wheels of growth, the records list the names of developers who put the deals together, the construction companies who build things and the real estate agents who sell them.
On the reports filed by most candidates, the names, addresses and occupations of each campaign donor is spelled out clearly. But then there's the report filed by Howard Clement, whose donors toil in the mysterious occupations of "business" or "academic." And Dan Hill, who didn't even disclose names, saying he collected many small donations that by law do not have to be reported.
Elections Director Mike Ashe's job, by state law, is to do the math on candidates' finances. If there are errors, he points them out and asks them to be corrected. If there are obvious blanks, he asks candidates to fill them in. But he doesn't have authority to poke into the origins of donations, and he thinks the onus is on those who hope to be elected--and those who vote for them.
"Candidates don't do the campaign finance reports for me, they do them for their opponents, and for the media and the voters," Ashe says. "There's no 'campaign finance police,' if you will."
Does he think the system works?
"I think it's pretty good," Ashe says. "But is it perfect? No."
As the 2002 election cycle comes around, we took a tour through the voluminous binder on file in the Durham County Board of Elections office to have a look-see at who paid for Durham's 2001 campaigns, and where they work.
Here's a sampling.
A donor by any other job name is not the same.
State election law requires that every candidate collect and report an occupation and an employer for each donor who gives more than $100. Ninety-nine dollars? You can be anonymous. One hundred dollars and 25 cents? You gotta fess up who you work for and what you do for all the media, other candidates and, yes, even the voters to see. But several Durham examples show that law leaves wiggle room, because it relies on the candidates doing the reports to keep the records, using information from the donors.
"I would like them to be as complete as possible--it's in the candidate's best interest," Ashe says. "Most candidates give an open and honest accounting."
But not all.
Take Howard Clement's report, for example. Clement, a 20-year City Council veteran, spared his supporters the embarrassment of any details on his report, listing general categories for each, such as "insurance" (Bert Collins, president and CEO, N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, $300) or "academic" (Duke University's public affairs and government relations chief John Burness, $100). And some of them were inaccurate--he listed developer Anthony Dilweg's occupation as "communication."
"The intent is to provide specific and meaningful disclosure of the donor's principal occupation and source of employment income," the state law reads, providing a list of examples of job titles. "The profession or job title listed should be specific."
The law is very clear. Clement's report is very fuzzy. Why?
"That would be a very good question for you to ask Howard," says Ashe.
Clement says he didn't know the law calls for specifics. "I didn't know all the professions of all the folks. I just got donations from them, I didn't do any business," Clement says. "I certainly did not intend to break the law."
Even though he didn't provide details, at least Clement gave full names and addresses for each donor. Hill didn't reveal a single name, reporting that no one donor gave him more than $100 in his unsuccessful re-election bid for an at-large council seat. While that's allowable under the law, it implies that Hill raised a large amount of money--$21,175--from at least 211 individuals donating $99.99 or less, each.
For another example of donor identification shenanigans, take the discrepancies among the reports of candidates who received money from Real Estate Associates. Principals at the Durham property management company and brokerage gave money to several candidates, including $600 each to at-large candidate Thomas Stith and Ward 3 candidate Erick Larson, as well as $1,500 to at-large hopeful Lewis Cheek. Stith listed the occupation of company vice president Miriam Wellons as "homemaker," while the other candidates reported her real job.
Good things come in big PACkages.
Former Mayor Nick Tennyson got really tired of people on the campaign trail asking him whether he had a conflict of interest being the mayor and also the lobbyist for the pro-growth Home Builders Association of Durham & Orange Counties. Apparently, though, he didn't tire of the money that connection brought him. Tennyson collected the maximum allowed--$4,000 each--from his employer's local PAC and from BuildPAC, the political fundraising arm of the statewide homebuilders association.
And just three months after losing his re-election bid, Tennyson went back on the stump to replenish the coffers for the 2002 election. "Please consider the major effect government has on your daily life and then dig deep to help make sure our state association can provide appropriate help to housing friendly candidates," Tennyson wrote to building industry execs in the February edition of his employers' newsletter. Tennyson also accepted another $4,000 from the Friends of Durham PAC, a conservative pro-business organization, and $400 from the state Realtors' PAC.
Tennyson's successful challenger Bill Bell, however, scored highest on income from party PACs in the nonpartisan race, drawing $2,000 cash from the Democratic National Committee and $5,250 in in-kind donations from the state Dems.
Not all politics are local.
Black business leaders from several out-of-state companies donated large chunks to Durham's winning mayoral candidate. Bell accepted $4,000--the maximum allowed--from his college buddy Eddie Brown, founder and president of Brown Capital Management in Maryland and a nationally known Wall Street financier whose company controls $6 billion in assets. Bell also accepted $1,500 total from three different employees of an Ohio company called Polytech Inc., one of the largest African-American-owned engineering firms in the nation, which has a Durham branch office. Bell's donations included $1,000 from company president Norman Bliss, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and $250 each from two regional Polytech employees.
'Tis even more interesting to give than to receive.
Candidates spent money from their coffers on a variety of causes, campaigns, and expenses.
Tennyson paid a D.C. company $7,500 to call voters on his behalf, and also charged his campaign for personal expenses such as cell phone bills and out-of-town trips.
Bell gave former N.C. House Speaker Dan Blue $250 toward his bid for U.S. Senate, but also gave $100 to Blue's rival, Erskine Bowles. Bell also paid $300 to the "N.C. Leadership Conference Inc.," for sending out pre-recorded phone messages to voters. That group is run by Lavonia Allison, the chairwoman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, listing as its address 1315 McLaurin Ave., Allison's home.
And speaking of the Durham Committee, the powerful 67-year-old civil rights organization was the benefactor of several campaigns. Clement gave the group $500 for its "get-out-the-vote effort." The Committee also collected $700 from Ward 1 winner Cora Cole-McFadden and $360 from Stith, who won an at-large seat.
The grass is always greener (with real roots).
In Maine and Arizona, voters have approved changes to the big-bucks-buy-influence system that some critics call "legalized bribery." In North Carolina, Asheville is looking at a "clean money" elections reform where candidates would raise a little money from supporters--enough to prove they are viable candidates--and would then receive public financing to buy yard signs, air time and other campaign necessities.
Durham needs grassroots campaigns where actual citizens donate most of the money to candidates based on their beliefs and initiatives instead of their profit potential. Call us unrealistic. Call us idealistic. Call us when there's some real campaign finance reform.