As cars roared down Six Forks Road in North Raleigh last Tuesday morning, about a dozen college students stood at the corner in 80-degree-and-climbing heat, holding signs in front of the office of the North Carolina Home Builders Association. Beside them was a makeshift set of scales with a heavy money bag outweighing a cardboard cutout of North Carolina and a pile of flimsy cardboard gingerbread people.
This symbolic display was a change of pace for the activists with Democracy North Carolina, a Carrboro-based group working for campaign finance reform. They've spent the summer doing less glamorous things, like walking door to door through residential neighborhoods to ask people to support N.C. Senate Bill 760, "Local Campaign Finance Options," which would have allowed local governments to set up their own publicly financed elections systems. Cary and Chapel Hill have been trying to exercise authority over campaign finance issues in municipal elections, but they need the legislature's OK.
All was going well--with bipartisan sponsorship, the bill had passed the Senate--when Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County blocked the bill in Election Law Committee, refusing to let it come for a vote and effectively killing it. Democracy N.C. says the Home Builders Association pressured Stam and other legislators to kill the legislation. The Home Builders Association's political action committee is the second largest contributor to state legislators, topped only by its ally, the N.C. Realtors PAC. Bills affecting residential development--impact fees, environmental protections, smart growth ordinances and so on--directly affect their profits.
Nora Anderson, a UNC-Chapel Hill student, read a statement explaining the action. "We're all here for one reason: to declare our independence from the corrupt influence of special interests like the N.C. Home Builders Association."
"We thought, a bit naively I suppose, that the bill would pass right through committee and go to vote on the House floor. But the N.C. Home Builders Association had other plans."
Lesson: Sweat, shoe leather and hard work can make progress, but the machinations of the legislature can easily be stalled by a big wad of cash.
So the students decided to try the Michael Moore technique.
As activists Sarah Carucci and Hunal Choksi read a "declaration of independence" statement from an oversized scroll, organizer Adam Sotak hovered around them with a video camera. Then it was time to present their mock award to N.C. Home Builders Association PAC's general counsel Mike Carpenter. (Carpenter did not return calls and e-mail for comment.)
The gaggle of kids in matching T-shirts rounded the corner to the entrance of the nondescript office building while a middle-aged woman in red kitten heels was taking her smoke break, looking on silently. The glass doors and windows of the entrance offered a view inside, but the doors were locked, and the woman sitting at the front desk wearing a headset did not let them in.
"We'd like to speak with someone from the Home Builders Association," they said into the intercom. "Out here is fine. We want to present an award." Sotak pointed the camera at the air-conditioned lobby. The woman mouthed words back to them, but she didn't use the intercom, so they couldn't hear. The students giggled. "They couldn't be afraid of a bunch of kids," one of them said.
Several minutes later, a middle-aged man in a golf shirt came down, spoke with the flustered front desk lady and cracked the door open. "Are you from the Home Builders Association?" the students asked, almost in unison. "No. I'm from another company that owns most of this building. And I don't think you're supposed to be here. This is private property," he said, lowering his chin and scanning the group, then closed the door. By this time, the smoking woman had walked away.
One of the students noticed an American flag stuck to the brick exterior. "Isn't that sweet?" she said. A delivery person was waiting inside the lobby. "Oh no, the delivery guy can't get out!" a young woman said. The kids backed up, clearing a path on the sidewalk. "We promise we won't come inside," they said into the intercom. A man inside replied, "Don't play with the buzzer."
As two more men in golf shirts came downstairs to glare at the students, organizer Peter Walz said it was time to step back from the door and leave the award on the sidewalk outside. They wrote a note as the deliveryman finally exited, shaking his head and laughing. "Sorry to mess up your route!" a young woman said brightly.
The kids set the framed certificate on the cement, then waved to the people behind the glass as one young woman yelled, "Bye! Nice to protest you!"
As they walked to the manicured grass edge of the office property, a Raleigh police car pulled around to greet them. The single officer came out and asked to speak with the organizer. "You need a permit to assemble like this," he said. "You need to go through the proper channels next time."