The red-white-and-blue attack ad appeared in Asheville voters’ mailboxes just a couple of days before Election Day 2003. “VOTER ALERT” it proclaimed in screaming red capital letters. “Environmental extremists bring gridlock to Asheville … Delay The Widening Of Over-Crowded I-26!! … Extremists and Obstructionists have no place on our City Council.”
The flier’s road rage was directed at Asheville City Council candidate Brownie Newman, former longtime chairman of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a grassroots environmental group. And in its colors, layout and warnings about “environmental extremists,” the flier was practically identical to one sent out on the eve of the 2001 election, which Newman narrowly lost. (The headline on that flier was “Prevent Development of the Old Vacant Sayles Bleachery Property??”) The close similarity suggested that the same person or persons were behind both. But who? And why did they harbor such a fierce grudge against Newman?
The key lay in the legally mandated fine print at the bottom of each handbill: “Paid for by Citizens to Stop Gridlock” on the 2003 flier, and “Paid for by Citizens for New Leadership” on the 2001 mailer.
Citizens for New Leadership is the PAC that, in 2001, opened Asheville’s eyes to the influence big money could bring to bear on local races. The group raised more than $50,000 from a list of donors that reads like a who’s who of local developers. It gave $8,000 apiece to the bloc of four candidates who went on to achieve a majority on Council: Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Carl Mumpower, Joe Dunn and Jim Ellis. Six months after their swearing in, the four voted to allow Wal-Mart to build a Supercenter on the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site, handing developers a victory in a bitter fight that both sides viewed as symbolic.
But the identity of the attack flier’s author remained buried among the more than 50 names on Citizens for New Leadership’s 2001 finance report. In 2003, however, the report for the other PAC, Citizens to Stop Gridlock, listed two principal donors: “P.A. Newman, Supervisor, Taylor & Murphy Const. Co.” and the PAC’s treasurer, “Cecil T. Cantrell, Retired.”
Cecil Cantrell‘s name appears on the lists of donors to both PACs. The Hendersonville businessman (he also keeps an apartment in Asheville) was a co-founder of the Norm’s Minit-Mart retail chain, once served on the UNCA board of trustees (alongside Jim Ellis), and listed his occupation in 2001 as “auto sales.” Cantrell, whose name shows up in the campaign-finance reports of many local conservative candidates and PACs, did not return repeated phone calls. But the Newman listed as a Citizens to Stop Gridlock donor confirmed that Cantrell was indeed the author of the 2003 flier. And he may well have produced the earlier one, too.
Bill Newman (incorrectly listed as “P.A. Newman” in the report) is no relation to Brownie Newman — and no fan of his, either. This Newman is vice chairman of the Buncombe County Planning Board, which decides whether to approve large development projects. He’s also a vice president of Taylor & Murphy Construction Company, one of Asheville’s leading construction firms.
Taylor & Murphy is a principal contractor in the Sayles/Wal-Mart project. And in 2001, company President Kenneth Murphy gave $1,000 to Citizens for New Leadership.
But Taylor & Murphy’s specialty is building highways and highway bridges. The company is a local pillar of North Carolina’s powerful highway-construction lobby; Bill Newman (who oversees T&M’s highway division) recently served as Western North Carolina chairman of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, “the largest construction trade association in the Carolinas” acording to its Web site.
Brownie Newman’s environmental organization, meanwhile, caused Bill Newman’s construction company to lose what would have been its biggest highway project ever. In May 2002, the state Department of Transportation was just about to award Taylor & Murphy an $83.7 million contract to add lanes to Interstate 26 in Henderson County — which is also Cantrell’s home turf — when the WNC Alliance and several other local environmental organizations filed a lawsuit that halted the project indefinitely. The legal challenge forced the DOT to assess the cumulative environmental effects of all the projects planned for I-26 in Henderson and Buncombe counties before proceeding with any particular one of them.
“We had spent a lot of money on trying to procure the work,” Bill Newman told Xpress. “We had a project there that would have been the largest project we’d ever done.” He predicts “damages to our whole community” from future traffic delays on I-26: “Having traffic sit out there on the roads, we’ll have a lot more problems than we would if we had the roads built.”
Bob Jolly, one of the developers of the Sayles/Wal-Mart project and a $1,000 donor to Citizens for New Leadership in 2001, also weighed in with a $1,000 contribution to Citizens to Stop Gridlock in 2003. The flier attacking Brownie Newman was Citizens to Stop Gridlock’s sole campaign expenditure, according to its finance report.
Ironically, Brownie Newman believes the attack flier actually helped him win in 2003.
“I think that people want environmental leaders representing them,” he told Xpress. “So even though what they said contained a lot of false information … accusing someone of being an environmental advocate is not going to be effective in Asheville.
“I think [the flier] did backfire; I think it really did. I think it reminded a lot of our people about the importance of voting.”
What’s more, continued Newman, some people who received the flier thought it was encouraging folks to vote for him. “They didn’t read it, they just looked at it, and … it basically repeats my name over and over again in capital letters, so they thought it was me. ‘Oh yeah, Brownie Newman — Brownie sent something out there to get his name recognition up.’ Only later, they read it and realized it was saying something negative about me.”