Who’s behind this ridiculous full-page ad in the News and Observer? | News

Who’s behind this ridiculous full-page ad in the News and Observer?

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This morning, the N&O’s print readers awoke to this full-page ad, paid for by a political action committee called Wake Citizens for Good Government, attacking Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin and candidates Matt Tomasulo ((BTW, guys, Matt Tomasulo, not Mike  Tomasulo) and Ashton Mae Smith for their support of downtown bars into the ongoing fight over sidewalk patios. (The INDY, while generally favoring downtown bacchanal, has endorsed Tomasulo but not Baldwin or Smith.) 

“Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin and other candidates, fueled with contributions from the bar and night club owners, are trying to reshape the city’s downtown with liberal liquor laws that will make downtown – DrunkTown,” it warns, adding that Baldwin wants to “control” City Hall. 

A few things: 1) Yes, Baldwin probably wants to control City Hall. Everyone expects her to run for mayor in a couple of years, after all. 2) Yes, these candidates have gotten money from the bars. 3) However, they’re not trying to reshape “liquor” laws—that’s the ABC’s domain, anyway—but rather trying to maintain the city’s nearly decade-old status quo. Technically, it’s the rein-in-nightlife contingent who reshaped things, changing the existing rules to in an effort to make the sidewalks safer and quieter. 4) Also, “liberal” liquor laws? In a literal, dictionary sense, perhaps. But it doesn’t cut well ideologically. The Democratic mayor voted in favor of the restrictions, while her Republican challenger has aligned with the bars. Kay Crowder and Russ Stephenson, liberal Democrats both, also support the nightlife restrictions. And Wake Citizens for Good Government also appears to be a liberal-leaning group

Here’s something funny about that: Last October, Friends of Mary-Ann Baldwin cut the PAC a check for $1,000, part of $2,000 in contributions that cycle, according to committee finance records. (See page 5.) On Facebook, Baldwin—who has not returned our calls—posted that she “donated to the PAC's Get-Out-the-Vote efforts for Senator Kay Hagan and the Wake County Commissioners.”


We wondered who was behind this group, which was first organized in 2009 and whose Facebook page is only liked by 31 people and hasn’t been updated since 2013.  The most recent campaign finance document we’ve located dates to June and covers the first half of this year. During that time, the committee received only one donation of $3,000 and, as of June 2015, had only $52 cash on hand. (Posts on social media suggest that the committee in fact disbanded and then reconstituted itself. The Wake County Board of Elections says as far as it knows, the committee has been open since 2009 and never shut down.The PAC’s treasurer referred our call to the PAC’s lawyer, who responded to our voice mail with the statement below.) Because we don’t have current finance records, it’s impossible to know for sure who financed the ad. Empire Properties owner Greg Hatem, who has become the bar crowd’s boogeyman over the last several months, emphatically denied any involvement with the PAC or the ad.  

The sole donor in the first half of the year was Dean Debnam, the founder and owner of Public Policy Polling and CEO of Workplace Options, as well as the PAC’s chair. Debnam, who has not yet returned a phone call, also maxed out to Stephenson’s reelection bid ($5,100). He has not given to Crowder. Most of those funds, $2,124, went to the Raleigh law firm of Bailey & Dixon LLP. Most of the revenue it collected last year went to an accountant. 

A few minutes ago, the PAC’s attorney, Michael L. Weisel, emailed us a statement. It reads: 

Today, Wake Citizens for Good Government IE PAC began a multi-media campaign to give a voice to all residents of Raleigh. Chair Dean Debnam had this to say: 

“Wake Citizens for Good Government IE PAC is involved in this municipal election because Raleigh residents are being left out of the conversation and they deserve a voice in what is happening to our downtown. Bar and nightclub owners currently have an outsized voice in shaping downtown since they are funneling contributions and support to the campaigns of various council members and candidates. I am trying to even that playing field out for all residents of Raleigh. 

“The truth is most residents are fed up with public drunkenness and the added late night noise of operating bars on the sidewalk in downtown. They have, and want to see, a bigger vision for Raleigh—one that is looking out for our neighborhoods, planning for Raleigh’s growth, and making sure we have a great quality of life.”

The public education campaign begins today and will last through Election Day. 

See related PDF Wake_Citizens_for_GG_IE_PAC_Statement_-_30_September_2015.pdf
We’re still trying to hash through things, and we’ll update as information becomes available. In the meantime,  the bar owners have struck back with this parody video. 

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