In late July, the Wake County Democratic Party did something it hadn't done before: endorse a challenger to Raleigh mayor Nance McFarlane. Instead it backed Charles Francis, a banker and lawyer—and, most important, the first viable Democrat to run against the unaffiliated McFarlane since she took office in 2011.
It was less a rebuke to the mayor than an example of blind partisan loyalty. As party chairwoman Rebecca Llewelin explained to The News & Observer, the party's "mission should be to elect Democrats to office."
But before Francis received that endorsement, he raked in substantial campaign donations from high-profile North Carolina Republicans, including former state senator Fred Smith, a sponsor and vocal supporter of Amendment 1, and Kieran Shanahan, a GOP operative and former public safety director under Governor McCrory.
In an interview, Francis says donations from nineteen registered Republicans—compared to only thirteen registered Democrats, out of forty-one total donors—did not signify shared ideology but arose from professional relationships he built. The Oak City native had taken in $74,800, including $19,450 he lent to his campaign, by June 30, a little more than a week after forming his campaign committee June 21.
Additional prominent Francis donors include Burley Mitchell, a retired chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court who is registered as unaffiliated, and Deborah Holder, a Raleigh Democrat who is the sister-in-law of Eric Holder, a U.S. attorney general under President Obama.
McFarlane, on the other hand, has received donations from such Democratic stalwarts as Attorney General Josh Stein, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, and Wake County Board of Commissioners chairman Sig Hutchinson. In fact, McFarlane had received donations from roughly five times as many Democrats as Republicans through the end of June, records show.
"I will continue to share with the Democratic Party the values of inclusivity, support for public schools, protection of the environment, and economic opportunities for all, and I'm proud of the continued support I have from many Democrats across the city," McFarlane says.
Other Democratic McFarlane donors include Charles Meeker, Raleigh mayor from 2001–11, and former state representative Deborah Ross, a U.S. Senate candidate in 2016. McFarlane, who cofounded the specialty pharmacy company MedPro Rx, took in $76,535 in the first reporting period.
(A third mayoral candidate, Republican Paul Fitts, has previously run for elective office in Wake County. As of filing day, his only spending was the $100 fee he paid to enter the race.)
An INDY analysis of the first batch of donations raises questions about the value of party loyalty and endorsements in a race where affiliation is not supposed to matter and candidates have some level of support from both parties. Complicating the matter—and reflecting a national trend—voters registered as unaffiliated in Wake County have increased by 48 percent since 2011, when McFarlane was first elected.
Events in the campaign's early days illustrate the ways in which business ties and other local affiliations can outweigh, but not completely overshadow, the influence of the state's parties.
Francis offers two reasons for the donations he's received from Republicans.
"I am a native of Raleigh, and many of the donors are people I have known since I was young," says Francis, who attended public schools in Raleigh before earning degrees from Princeton University and Duke Law School. "The second reason is the breadth of my relationships since I returned to Raleigh in 1991."
After serving as a federal prosecutor in Georgia, Francis started a Raleigh law practice and became a founding director of North State Bank, where Fred Smith is chairman of the board. At least six of Francis's donors are board members at the bank.
"I am proud to have Fred as a colleague and friend," Francis says.
Veterans of the same-sex marriage controversy in North Carolina remember Smith, then a conservative state senator from Johnston County, as a sponsor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Amendment 1 was approved by 61 percent of voters statewide in 2012, but a federal judge overturned it two years later.
Francis disclaims any connection with anti-LGBTQ views.
"That's not my position," he says. "I am a strong supporter of the LBGTQ movement, and I am going to use the bully pulpit to speak on LBGTQ issues."
Smith declined to comment on policy matters, saying his political life is over.
"Charles and I have a business association at North State Bank," he says. "And when I ran for Senate about eighteen years ago, right around 2000, I really worked hard to get the African-American vote in Johnston County. Charles, despite the fact that he's a Democrat, despite the fact that he's from Wake, he came down and spoke for me. He is an outstanding man and a man of character."
Francis also cites a long relationship with Shanahan, who has served as a tough GOP strategist from his days as a strong conservative voice on the Raleigh City Council to his redrawing of Wake County school board and county commission districts for the General Assembly and his brief tenure in McCrory's cabinet.
Brian Fitzsimmons, a McFarlane supporter and former chairman of the Wake Democrats, says questions about cross-party donations are to be expected.
"If I ran for office and if I were in that position, I would expect that I'd get questions, especially since I'm a registered Democrat," Fitzsimmons says. "It's kind of the nature of the beast."
Asked about Francis's GOP contributors, McFarlane's campaign declined to comment directly. "Our campaign will continue to talk about Raleigh's success, because unlike the federal and state governments, we have been able to rise above partisanship to work together and find solutions," campaign manager James Sonneman says in a statement.
McFarlane points to her record, including a poll of residents showing a high level of satisfaction about life in Raleigh, brokering a deal to create Dix Park, breaking ground on the new Union Station transport hub, and overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into the city in new businesses and expansions of existing business.
Francis has criticized McFarlane for being distant and "aloof" from citizens, especially with regard to her handling of the controversy surrounding resident input and the city's nineteen citizen advisory councils.
Still, McFarlane has chalked up large margins of victory in small-turnout elections in 2011, 2013, and 2015. Whether Francis's change-oriented rhetoric will be enough to overcome the incumbent's advantages remains to be seen.