Seven things we learned from the News & Observer’s follow up on our scoop on the $120K PAC
Seven things we learned from the News & Observer’s follow up on our scoop on the $120K PAC

Earlier today the News & Observer published a piece on the plans by twelve wealthy couples to inject $120,000 into the Chapel Hill elections in a bid to overturn the Chapel Hill Town Council’s June vote to legalize duplexes townwide.

Here are seven things we learned:

The News & Observer confirms that Adam Searing met with Julia Grumbles

Adam Searing announced his candidacy for Mayor in mid-June, before the council voted on the Housing Choices text amendment that permitted people to build duplexes and garage apartments townwide. Searing, who vociferously opposed this policy change,  acknowledged meeting with Grumbles, who encouraged him to run for Mayor.

When asked whether he discussed the PAC with Grumbles, Adam Searing said “I don’t remember.”

There are strict rules against campaigns coordinating with Political Action Committees, for good reason. And candidates are well aware of this prohibition. Chapel Hill has strict campaign finance rules, and candidates are only allowed to receive $357 from individuals. While PACs and other groups can raise more money from individual donors, they aren’t allowed to work with campaigns. It is interesting, given the legal ramifications, that he does not recall such a conservation. 

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she was “appalled” by the news that a few individuals were trying to “dominate” the election.

Pam Hemminger, the Mayor of Chapel Hill, has been in office since 2015, when she defeated Mark Kleinschmidt in a very competitive election. She noted that council campaigns in Chapel Hill generally spend between $12,000 and $14,000, while mayoral contests cost $20,000 to $24,000. For a few individuals to plan to spend $120,000 on a slate of candidates is unprecedented.

Brent Comstock, the consultant who is being recruited to run the PAC, said he was not currently “engaged in this project.”

According to Grumbles’ email, the plan was for the wealthy couples to make pledges to donate the money, after which Comstock would then be hired to run the campaign. Early voting does not start until Thursday, October 19, which means that there’s still plenty of time for Comstock to become formally engaged in the campaign.

Grumbles’ email is inaccurate. The Housing Choices text was voted on by our elected council members, and is designed to make it easier for young families to move here, and older households to downsize without leaving their communities.

As Mayor Hemminger noted, Grumbles’ email made many false claims, including that making it easier to build duplexes and small homes will “destroy neighborhoods.” We saw this kind of misinformation in the spring, much of which was promoted by Adam Searing and the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), so it’s not surprising to see it show up here as well. 

Mayoral candidate Jess Anderson calls the PAC an effort to “subvert democracy.”

From Grumbles’ email, it is clear that the primary objective of the PAC is to overturn the 6-3 decision by the Chapel Hill Town Council to permit the construction of duplexes and backyard cottages townwide. Anderson noted that this PAC, which aims to elect Searing for mayor and for council his chosen “team”—Elizabeth Sharp, Renuka Soll, David Adams, and Breckany Eckhardt—is effectively an effort to “predetermine the actions of a majority on a council.”

If successful, we expect that other wealthy individuals will form PACs to overturn political decisions they don’t like. This makes it very difficult for any incremental change to take place in Chapel Hill. (The housing amendment was substantially reduced in scope last year after Grumbles and others complained.)

We are trying to raise $12,000 to mail a progressive voter guide to voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. That’s a tenth of what this group wants to do.

We wish the News & Observer had been able to talk with Grumbles and the other individuals identified in the email. (The N&O observed that none of the individuals named in the letter answered their phones or emails requesting comment.)

We are trying to raise a much smaller amount of money to send out a progressive voter guide to voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. As the article mentioned, we don’t disclose our donors because many of our supporters are graduate students, junior faculty, and other workers whose careers can be damaged if someone in our “one company college town” decides to retaliate against them for their political beliefs. (This is not a hypothetical: earlier this year, a coordinator for CHALT posted our addresses on social media — we don’t want that to happen to anyone else.) And we maintain a strict firewall between the people handling our finances and the rest of us. (We can’t tell you who donated or how much because we don’t know ourselves.)

Please donate to TBB. Even a few dollars will help us meet our goal, and help show that Chapel Hill and Carrboro politics can’t be bought by a few very wealthy and powerful individuals.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...