Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Real estate dollars loud and clear in New Hanover County Board of Commissioners contest

Incumbent New Hanover County Commissioner and candidate Debra Hays are the beneficiaries of a batch of donations funded by N.C. Realtors. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Barfield, Hays)
Incumbent New Hanover County Commissioner and candidate Debra Hays are the beneficiaries of a batch of donations funded by N.C. Realtors. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy of Barfield, Hays)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—Unbeknownst to Jonathan Barfield and Debra Hays, two candidates for New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, a group affiliated with N.C. Realtors funneled nearly $200,000 to measures supportive of their campaigns in recent months. 

Barfield and Hays are both professional real estate agents who proudly display their experience and credentials in campaigning. Barfield, a licensed real estate agent since 1997, was president of Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors in 2007. Hays served as president of the same association in 2006, and has worked as a real estate agent with Intracoastal Realty Corporation since 1998. 

Related: Cash and the county: How money in local politics can bump hometown races

Barfield and Hays naturally attracted the favor of the state’s pre-eminent trade association in the real estate field, N.C. Realtors, which refers to itself on its website as “one of the largest and most influential state associations in North Carolina.” 

N.C. Realtors contains an umbrella of organizations working to influence local and state elections on behalf of candidates who overlap with the organization’s goals of promoting and protecting homeownership and the real estate industry. The specific group that made such high-powered contributions to Barfield and Hays is known as the N.C. Property Rights Fund. On the N.C. Realtors website, the fund is described as supporting “a common sense, bipartisan legislative agenda dedicated to protecting consumer and property owner rights.”

The Property Rights Fund supported Barfield and Hays, along with a host of other candidates in elections throughout the state, through favorable independent expenditures. The fund also makes use of corporate contributions.

Barfield and Hays each received a boost from the fund while in the midst of primary campaigns back in February. During that month, the Property Rights Fund sent over $80,000 to Sinclair Public Affairs in Raleigh, for the purposes of producing mailers and digital advertising work on behalf of the two candidates. 

Chris Sinclair, the founder of the firm, said he could not discuss work done on behalf of a client, and said questions should be directed to N.C. Realtors. 

“The NC Property Rights Fund supports the rights of property owners in North Carolina and believes that every citizen deserves the chance to take part in the American dream of homeownership. NC REALTORS® is proud to support that work,” an N.C. Realtors spokesperson wrote in an email. “We stand up for our issues – issues that cross party lines and draw support from all over the political spectrum.”

The group’s agenda includes bolstering the rights of private citizens to rent their property and increasing funding options for economic development projects across North Carolina. According to the N.C. Realtors website, at least 12 members of the group serve in the N.C. General Assembly.

Barfield, an incumbent Democrat first elected to the board of commissioners in 2008, said N.C. Realtors historically has supported candidates deemed to be a good fit for the industry.

“No different from the AFL-CIO, or the teachers union, or the Sierra Club, that endorse candidates based on what they think or what works for them,” he said. “Being a realtor is what I do for a living.”

Hays, a Republican and former chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission for nearly nine years, has been a longtime member and advocate for real estate associations at local, state and national levels, she said.

“I have no knowledge of anything that any PAC organization has done for me,”  she said. “I cannot know that and I do not know that.”

Candidates are barred from communicating with groups that make independent expenditures on their behalf. 

Hays added real estate agents naturally gravitate toward public service, and are a staple of municipal boards and governance. 

“You’d find it hard to find any organization or committee or commission that doesn’t currently have, or hasn’t recently had, a realtor serving on it,” she said. “Because that’s what we do. We service our community and we believe in our communities.”

In September, the Property Rights Fund returned to action with a flurry of high-dollar expenditures in support of the two campaigns. Sinclair Public Affairs received just over $110,000 from the fund in September — for mailers, digital advertising and in one case, a “vote texting program through election day” — expressly earmarked for election efforts supporting Barfield and Hays. 

Combined, the February and September contribution blitzes from the fund, sent through Sinclair Public Affairs, amount to $190,428 in support of the two candidates. 

“I’m quite confident that whoever is the source of that money is looking for something from it,” Richard Poole, head of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, said. “It eclipses what we can raise and spend. There’s no question about it.” 

“I wish it was all three Republicans that they were supporting,” said Will Knecht, head of the local GOP. “But I completely understand why they would be backing two members of their organization.” 

Barfield’s individual campaign committee reported cash contributions of around $36,000 since July — even though that puts him at the front of the pack among the six candidates in that time frame, the figure is a far cry from the dollar figure shelled out by the Realtor-affiliated group. Individually, Hays reported contributions to her committee of around $13,000 since July.

“I’m proud to be a Realtor,” Hays said. “We believe very much in quality of life and private property rights. And doing what’s right for the community.”

Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com

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