What does $120,000 buy you? A small group of wealthy Chapel Hill homeowners are hoping it buys them the 2023 mayoral and council race.

Several rich and well-connected residents in Chapel Hill’s wealthiest neighborhoods are planning to pour vast sums of money into this fall’s local election. The money will be directed to a single-issue Political Action Committee (PAC) that will oppose the modest housing changes that the Town adopted in the spring, and will be used to support Adam Searing and his allies for mayor and council.

Let’s be clear—this is unprecedented. The $120,000 goal is substantially higher—by a factor of 5—than any candidate has ever spent in a cycle in recent electoral history. (It’s also roughly 10x what CHALT’s PAC spent in the 2015 cycle.) It’s a blatant attempt to use concentrated wealth to hijack the local election campaign with fear and propaganda, paid for by the wealthiest members of our community.

Who is behind this?

The group trying to form what we’re calling the Wealthy Homeowner PAC is led by Julia Sprunt Grumbles, a former trustee of the University of North Carolina who splits her time between multi-million dollar residences in Chapel Hill and Highlands, NC. Grumbles is joined by:

  • Steve Jones, a professor and former dean at the Kenan-Flager Business School, and his wife Lisa
  • Greg Fitch, who has led the development of Fearrington Village
  • Bill Grumbles, Julia Grumbles’ husband, a former executive at Turner Broadcasting Company, who has donated thousands of dollars to a variety of Republican causes, including the Republican National Committee, Meadows for Congress, Bush-Cheney 04, and the North Carolina Republican Executive Committee.

All have pledged to give the maximum amount possible for a PAC ($6,400). They plan to use the money to hire Brent Comstock, a political consultant based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Comstock leads a digital strategy, fundraising and ad shop called BCom Solutions that typically works with state and national-level campaigns, focusing on rural communities.

In an email that has been circulating throughout Chapel Hill and shared with Triangle Blog Blog by multiple sources, Grumbles lays out plans to recruit a “dozen couples to come together” to chip in for the PAC, whose main goal is to overturn the council’s recent decision to allow gentle density (duplexes) in Chapel Hill. Grumbles writes that the changes, which are expected to be modest and provide more housing choices to seniors, young families, and multi-generational households, will “inevitably degrade our neighborhoods.”

The email sent to potential supporters states:

We met with Adam Searing, the one Council member who consistently opposed [housing choices], and encouraged him to run for Mayor, along with a slate of candidates he would recruit to fill the four open Council seats in the November election.  If successful, they will hold a 5-4 majority and are committed to reversing this policy and finding housing solutions that are driven by practicality rather than ideology.  These five are an impressive team…..

We promised Adam that we would support his slate during the campaign and this email is the start of that effort.

The plan is to form a political entity and run a targeted, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaign around this issue, targeting single-family homeowners in Chapel Hill.  The turnout for the last election was only 17% and the margin between winning and losing candidates was only about 50 votes in some cases. In other words, a modest boost in turnout would make all the difference.  The big public outcry around this issue suggests that’s entirely possible, but we need to make sure it happens and that the voters are crystal clear on where the candidates stand on this issue. A campaign to do that is estimated to cost $120k, which we hope to raise from about a dozen or so couples who feel strongly that Chapel Hill needs new leadership.  

How is this possible?

For years, the Town has limited the amount of money that can be donated to individual candidates. For example, in 2023 the limit is $357. However, PACs can raise up to $6,400 per person. In practice, no one has done that.

For example, in 2021 Julie McClintock gave the CHALT PAC nearly $1,200, while Adam’s dad Donald Searing chipped in $1,000. However, the total amount that the CHALT PAC raised that year was less than $4,000.

In 2019, they raised about $6,000 (including more than $1,000 from McClintock), and $13,600 in 2015 (including about $2,500 from McClintock and $1,000 from her husband). (All numbers taken from financial filings with the NC Board of Elections.)

This is a lot of money, but is a mere fraction of what the Wealthy Homeowner PAC is trying to raise.

Why should you be concerned?

The conceit that it is good or helpful for democracy to try to swamp it with unprecedented amounts of money should be concerning to all who believe in democracy.

It also reflects a lack of seriousness in dealing with the important issues that face us today. Housing prices are at crisis levels throughout the country, and particularly in Chapel Hill. These are serious problems that require serious answers. Chapel Hill’s housing choices ordinance is a modest attempt to address these issues. It allows duplexes in most residential zoning districts, including the R-1 district, with limitations on housing size, parking, tree protection, building size on the lot, and other elements that try to ensure that the housing fits in with the existing types of development in our neighborhoods. (We have previously written about what’s happening now: McMansions are replacing smaller homes in many neighborhoods across Chapel Hill.)

The housing choices ordinance was significantly scaled back from the original proposal, in response to comments made by Grumbles and others. But instead of engaging in the issues, their response is to pour thousands of dollars to support a candidate whose platform is to stand athwart proposals to change and shout “no.”

Grumbles’ letter claims that Searing and his allies promise to find “housing solutions that are driven by practicality rather than ideology.” The Town Council’s overall approach towards addressing our housing crisis is the furthest thing from ideology. It includes a robust program to fund and support dedicated affordable housing, which is legally restricted to low-income households. It includes the support of projects that provide housing options for adults just out of college and others through approval of projects such as the new apartments approved at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia. These projects serve important segments of our community that need housing.

But the one group that has been left out are young single and dual-income households who have jobs and make a decent income, but can’t possibly afford to live in Chapel Hill with its high prices. This includes professors at UNC, the nurses and support staff who keep the hospital running, and UNC staff. They have been priced out by the doctors, wealthy retired professionals like the Grumbles, and longtime homeowners who purchased their homes decades ago and have resisted any new housing development in our town.  (We collected many stories from people priced out or trying to stay in Chapel Hill in our coverage of the housing choices proposal.)

This young potential homeowner group can’t qualify for the dedicated affordable housing the Town has helped build, and they need more space than most larger apartment buildings can provide. That’s why these modest, non-ideological changes that the Town Council adopted in June are so important, because they show the Town is willing to address the practical barriers that prevent more family housing from being built in town.

Our community is a better place when we welcome people from all backgrounds. Chapel Hill isn’t great if you don’t have a lot of money, or live alone, or get divorced and want to live near your kids, or have an aging parent who has to live across town because you can’t build a duplex in your neighborhood. But it can be better.

It’s notable that this is being opposed by people who spend their summers in their second homes

The Wealthy Homeowners PAC aims to be the most well-funded effort to campaign against the Town’s modest efforts to provide housing options in town.

It’s notable that this campaign is being organized by people who spend summers in their second homes and are thinking about where to purchase their third or fourth homes, not their first.

Perhaps the most telling line of the email announcing the PAC is the first one:

I wish there was time to talk with you in person about this issue/opportunity, but my summer has been spent in the mountains away from Chapel Hill.

People who live part-time in Chapel Hill are trying to steal the election with their vast wealth. Let’s not let them.

This piece was written and researched by Geoff Green, Martin Johnson, Melody Kramer, and John Rees. Emails were obtained from multiple sources. All other financial information was taken from the North Carolina Board of Elections website.