Monday, March 4, 2024

One Raleigh super PAC perfectly predicted the New Hanover County Commissioners election

A dark-money group based in Raleigh took a special interest in New Hanover County during the previous election season. With support sent to the three winners, and attack ads dedicated to the two progressive candidates who lost, the super PAC saw its perfect outcome manifested last November. (Port City Daily/ File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY—In the weeks leading up to Election Day last year, a Raleigh-based super PAC funneled a wave of money into the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners contest. The three candidates supported by the group won seats on the board, while the two candidates targeted with opposition dollars lost their electoral bids. 

Conservative Leadership Committee NC, Inc. (CLC) is an independent expenditure political action committee, or super PAC, which can raise and spend money on behalf of candidates without offering transparency on its funding sources. Candidates themselves are barred from collaborating with these groups. 

The CLC was incorporated by Raleigh attorney Roger Knight in October 2016. He worked before on behalf of right-wing causes at the state level, and his wife Kathy is listed as the committee’s treasurer. 

While CLC put money toward candidates for the N.C. General Assembly and other Raleigh offices in the time since 2016, the bulk of the group’s funding during the late stages of the 2020 election cycle had a direct impact on New Hanover County races.

Two Republican candidates for board of commissioners, Deb Hays and William Rivenbark, received the backing of the CLC. The committee dedicated $30,000 to each of them throughout October and November — starting with T.V. advertisements and mailers in mid-October, and then newspaper ads in early November. 

Jonathan Barfield, the Democratic incumbent first elected to the board in 2008, had newspaper and T.V. ads produced on his behalf in the month preceding the election. The CLC’s support for Barfield amounted to around $10,700.

Locally, the CLC dedicated the most resources inflicting damage on the campaigns of Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton, the two progressive candidates who vocally questioned and criticized the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health

In a blitz of mailers and multi-platform advertisements, Cohen and Horton were attacked with nearly $120,000 of hard-to-trace money spent by the CLC. Like with the other candidates, CLC paid the money to The Stewart Group, Inc. — a Raleigh-based political consulting and corporate public affairs firm — which produced the materials. 

The CLC spent around $50,000 attacking Horton between Oct. 12 and Nov. 2. They made identical ad buys targeting Cohen, but also dedicated an additional $15,999 against her, which was spent on an attack-ad mailer with a listed date of Nov. 18, more than two weeks after the election took place. 

WHQR reported in late October that the CLC’s presence was felt on the ground in New Hanover County. Residents received attack ads against the two progressive candidates, lambasting Cohen for a previous bankruptcy and Horton for not owning real estate. 

One ad paid for by the CLC read: “Leslie Cohen went bankrupt! Now she wants to manage our tax dollars!”

Another ad backed by the CLC appeared on Spectrum Television in October, WHQR reported. The segment endorsed Hays, Rivenbark and Barfield for the three open spots on the board of commissioners. 

In all, the Raleigh group spent $190,000 in New Hanover County during October and November last year. From October on, the only other expenditure on a candidate’s behalf traced to the committee was a $45,000 “web design/programmatic ads” purchase for Mark Robinson, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor who was victorious in November.

The committee sent $24,500 to the Stewart Group on Oct. 16 for “research and polling,” and made a few in house payments, including $2,300 in attorney fees to Roger Knight. Conservative Leadership Committee N.C. focused sharply on New Hanover County.

Rivenbark went on to win the highest share of votes, followed by Hays and Barfield. Skip Watkins, the Republican candidate not backed by the CLC, finished below the cutoff at fourth. Cohen and Horton finished at fifth and sixth, respectively.

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners election results, Nov. 3 2020. (Courtesy NC Board of Elections)

Earlier in 2020, a different political group tied to N.C. Realtors put forward six figures of funding for Barfield and Hays, who are both real estate agents. Both candidates said no collaboration existed between their campaigns and the expenditure committee. 

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

It is largely unclear where the source of CLC’s funding lies. The group took in $20,000 in October from an LLC associated with Stefan Gleason, the president of a Charlotte-based marketing firm who also runs a national precious metals investment company. A member of the Belk family, which spearheaded the department store brand of the same name, gave the CLC $25,000 in late October.

Another group, N.C. Fund for a Conservative Future, made payments totaling $215,000 to the CLC throughout October and November. Information about this entity is scarce. It is not registered in the N.C. Secretary of State business database, nor as a political committee under the purview of the N.C. State Board of Elections. 

After the CLC first came on the scene in 2016, its first order of business was buying $20,000 worth of television spots on WECT, in support of then-board of commissioners candidate Patricia Kusek. 

Earlier in 2020, the CLC backed H. Dean Proctor, a Republican state senate candidate for District 42. Other than the one-time expenditure for Robinson, the committee’s focus hovered on New Hanover County beginning in autumn. 

“I have no doubt that the hospital is what this is about,” Cohen said in an interview. “I don’t have any proof of that, but if you look at the major difference in where the candidates stood on issues, that’s the one.” 

Former State Senator Harper Peterson, who has publicly voiced hesitancy on the hospital sale, said he too had suspicions that the CLC’s fervent opposition to Horton and Cohen was a result of their lack of enthusiasm for the public-to-private sale of NHRMC.

John Gizdic, the former CEO of NHRMC who was recently named executive vice president at Novant Health, personally contributed at least $250 last year to Peterson’s opponent, Michael Lee. Multiple individuals associated with NHRMC contributed to Barfield’s campaign committee.

There is no public evidence that the attack ads against Cohen and Horton were a result of their stance on the hospital sale, but it is unclear who the stakeholders were in the CLC’s ad-buying spree last year. A spokesperson for Novant Health said as a 510(c)(3), nonprofit organization, the company does not engage in political activity. 

Knight’s firm and The Stewart Group did not respond to requests for comment. 

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