Paying to play?

In recent months, private citizens and political action committees alike have once again succumbed to election fever, opening their wallets in hopes of securing the winning candidates’ support for the donors’ particular concerns. Of course, purse strings are not necessarily puppet strings, and elected officials have been known to favor conscience over contributions. Still, following the money can help illuminate the landscape of political influence.

In this year’s races, we won’t know the full story of who gave how much to whom until the candidates have filed all of their legally mandated campaign-finance reports with the local and state boards of elections (due in late January — but see, “Different Race, Same Bettors” below). In the meantime, however, Xpress crunched the numbers on the donors to last year’s Asheville City Council election to see what they might tell us about local patterns of political power. Although no City Council seats were up for grabs in 2004, it seems a safe bet that some of the same patterns — and many of the same names — may be in evidence in other local campaigns.

Election laws require all donors who give more than $100 to a candidate to disclose their name and occupation, along with the total amount they gave. We tallied these amounts from the finance reports of five of the six candidates who ran for the three open City Council seats last November. (The sixth, Rod Whiteside, reported no donors over $100, so his donations are not included in this analysis.) Then we charted the results under 14 broad categories representing all the occupations reported by those donors.

The five candidates, ranked according to how many votes they received, are victors Terry Bellamy, Brownie Newman and Jan Davis, followed by unsuccessful contenders Jim Ellis and Chris Pelly.

The long arm of real estate

The real-estate industry was hands down the biggest contributor of campaign funds. Donors identifying themselves as real-estate investors, realtors, surveyors, appraisers, developers and contractors collectively contributed almost $19,000 — more than one-quarter of the $72,374 given to all five candidates’ campaigns in $100-plus chunks.

National advocates of “smart growth,” or controlled development, call the real-estate and road-building industries the “sprawl lobby,” maintaining that it uses its considerable financial clout in state and local elections to quash efforts to regulate development by means of environmental protections or planning-and-zoning laws. In North Carolina’s 2002 elections, the N.C. Home Builders Association PAC and the N.C. Realtors PAC each gave more to state legislative candidates than any other political action committee — nearly half a million dollars between the two groups, according to Research Director Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan group that advocates for campaign-finance reform.

“Of the 170 members in the current General Assembly, 136 (80 percent) received campaign contributions from the Home Builders PAC during the 2002 election; 95 members — over half the legislature — got $1,000 or more,” noted Hall in a May 2003 press release.

“In election cycle after election cycle,” he continued, “Democracy North Carolina has found that donors related to the development or ‘sprawl lobby’ are the single largest source of political contributions for state candidates (executive and legislative branch). This sector provides more than the health-care, banking or legal sectors.”

Here in Asheville, the lion’s share of real-estate money (82 percent) went to Jim Ellis and Jan Davis. Twenty-one of Ellis’ 37 $100-plus donors and 20 of Davis’ 48 worked in real-estate-related occupations; no other donor group loomed as large in either candidate’s list of supporters.

The most contentious issue in the 2003 campaign was whether to allow the Grove Park Inn to develop one corner of Pack Square. Incumbent Jim Ellis, who ranked among the staunchest supporters of the GPI proposal, netted contributions from three of its most prominent backers: Grove Park Inn CEO Craig Madison ($500); Pack Square Conservancy chairwoman Carol King ($200); and Lou Bissette ($350), a former Asheville mayor who’s the attorney for the Grove Park Inn.

Tire-store owner Jan Davis was endorsed by the Council of Independent Business Owners, a politically active and generally pro-development business-advocacy group. Most of the real-estate donors to Davis’ campaign are also associated with CIBO, such as appraiser Mac Swicegood ($450); CIBO executive Mike Plemmons and his family ($1,000 collectively); and CIBO co-founder Mike Summey ($200), who used to own a billboard business and recently authored a popular book on how to get rich by buying distressed properties.

Despite securing CIBO’s blessing, however, Davis — an environmental moderate who chaired a city/county task force charged with finding ways to reduce ozone pollution — failed to win the endorsement of Citizens for New Leadership in Asheville, the conservative PAC that many Ashevilleans believe swung the 2001 City Council election with its substantial donations to the four Council candidates who collected the most votes that year. (All four subsequently voted to reverse city staff’s earlier denial and approve the highly controversial Super Wal-Mart development at the old Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries.)

That PAC, later renamed the Committee for Balanced Government in Asheville, broke up in 2003 after its members were unable to reach consensus on supporting Davis or any other candidate, according to group chairman Langdon Ammen.

Ammen, a mortgage investor, is treasurer of the Carolina Real Estate Investors Association. And most of the PAC’s other members are also involved in real estate, such as property manager Diane Worley, the sister-in-law of Mayor Charles Worley (himself a real-estate attorney).

In fact, despite the media buzz generated in 2003 by the appearance on the scene of two new liberal PACs (Match Our Mountains and Spare Change), the numbers show that political action committees in general were bit players last year when it came to putting the chips on the table — ranking only sixth among the 14 donor categories, with $4,850 in total donations.

Retirees to be reckoned with

The finance reports also reveal the surprising amount of influence wielded by retirees — the second most generous campaign-donor group in last year’s Council election. Most of their more than $14,000 in donations went to the pro-environmental candidate who upset conventional expectations by raising more money than any of his competitors: Brownie Newman. Eleven donors listing their occupation as “retired” gave to Newman (versus four for Davis and three for Ellis).

In fact, a hefty chunk ($6,000) of Newman’s war chest came from a single retiree: Chuck Cole, a philanthropist who has supported such local nonprofits as The Health Adventure and the Mountain Area Hospice. Another $400 came from a very high-profile retiree: Mimi Cecil, the wife of Biltmore Estate owner William A.V. Cecil. Environmental activist Hazel Fobes ($150) also appears on Newman’s retired-donor list; she is the mother of Mountain Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes.

Asheville is nationally known as a retirement haven, and many local retirees say they were drawn to Western North Carolina by its natural beauty. So perhaps it’s not surpising that the most notably pro-environmental candidate should draw such strong support from local retired folks. These results also suggest that retirees may be a group to watch in future local elections. A nationwide survey of people 40 and older conducted in January of this year by the American Association of Retired People and RoperASW found that, in every age bracket, 72 to 74 percent of those surveyed supported more environmental regulations.

Money isn’t everything

But some of the smallest donor groups proved to be the most prescient in picking a winner. The largest percentage of arts-related money went to Terry Bellamy (the other incumbent besides Ellis), who upset the conventional wisdom that the big winners are always the big spenders when she garnered the most votes in the race while receiving the least amount of big-donor money of any candidate other than Whiteside. Gallery and theater owner John Cram gave Bellamy $200; her biggest individual donation, however, came from Highwater Clays owner Gail McCarthy ($1,000).

Bellamy drew donors from both sides of the political aisle, and even from the pulpit. Scott Riviere, director of Environment and Conservation Management, gave the candidate $250; developer George Morosani kicked in $300 — and so did Bishop Ann Hardman of Georgia, the founder of Ann Hardman Ministries (a multistate congregation that owns the West Asheville boutique Bish-Up’s Design).

Bellamy also received $200 from a Republican dairy farmer named Nathan Ramsey, a 2004 candidate for a second term as chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. But she was by no means the only Council candidate last year to receive funding from fellow politicos — all of whom are classed here under the heading of “government,” regardless of what occupation they listed.

Some donations may have foreshadowed future alliances, such as Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower‘s $200 check to Davis, and Council member Holly Jones‘ $150 contribution to Newman. Davis recently supported Mumpower’s “war on drugs” initiative, which Newman and Jones opposed.

Development vs. environment

So what bigger picture does our money map reveal? It’s no secret that Asheville’s bitterest political struggles these days are being waged between pro-development and pro-environmental forces. Whether the issue is building a new Wal-Mart Supercenter, selling the Grove Park Inn a piece of the public square, or widening Interstate 240 to eight lanes in West Asheville, it generally seems to boil down to a dispute between those who favor building versus those who favor preserving.

The accompanying graphs suggest that the balance of political power in Asheville is teetering between development and environment — most notably between the real-estate interests that mainly supported Davis and Ellis, on the one hand, and the retirees who mainly supported Newman, on the other. The irony here is that the continuing influx of nature-seeking retirees attracted by our “uncrowded quality of life” (as one home-sales pitch on the Web puts it) is helping fuel the very real-estate boom that both capitalizes on and consumes the region’s natural beauty. In a way, the two most generous special-interest groups funding Asheville’s 2003 campaign are like a constantly feuding married couple who need each other just as much as they hate each other.

And the final vote count, which elevated the lightly funded Bellamy above all the rest, may serve as a reminder that no matter how much cash gets forked out for signs and ads urging us to support this or that candidate, no one really knows what the outcome will be until the voters pull the lever.

Different race, same bettors

Although the final reports on the 2004 campaigns aren’t due till late January, the early evidence suggests that things haven’t changed much from last year.

In this year’s race for chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the real-estate industry appears to have been by far the biggest funder, according to preliminary campaign-finance reports filed by candidates Nathan Ramsey and Ed Hay on Oct. 25. And once again, retirees apparently contributed the second-largest amount. (These are partial reports — the full accountings aren’t due until late January.)

Out of $38,940 in individually named donations reported so far for 2004, $14,800, (38 percent) came from the real-estate industry — represented generally by the same individuals who funded the 2003 Council race. Retirees kicked in $6,225, (16 percent). And though almost 90 percent of the nearly $40,000 in total named donations went to Ramsey, the incumbent, real-estate agents and developers also contributed roughly half of Hay’s $4,515 sliver of that pie.

Once again, national corporations with local interests staked a few C-notes on a hometown horse. From his Georgia headquarters, billboard magnate W.S. Morris sent Ramsey a check for $500. The Buncombe Republican also received $250 from a national PAC operated by Vulcan Materials Company (along with an additional $250 from the company’s local sales manager). Vulcan, which has a plant in Enka, is the country’s leading producer of crushed stone, an essential component of pavement and concrete for road building and other construction. This year alone, the Vulcan PAC has given more than $175,000 to dozens of mostly Republican candidates around the nation, according to www.campaignmoney.com, which tracks campaign contributions across the country.

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