As a rookie in electoral politics, Democrat Caroline Sullivan is excelling in one of the most important parts of the game, raising more than $108,000 in her race for a seat on the Wake County Board of Commissioners – about eight times as much as her opponent.
Running against Holly Springs businessman Dale Cooke, Sullivan has raised money not only from state Democratic stalwarts such as former President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, former N.C. Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten, former Jim Hunt Chief of Staff Franklin Freeman and former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York, but also from political operatives, including more than 20 registered federal lobbyists in the Washington area.
Many of Sullivan’s contributions, she said, came from friends she made during the eight or nine years in which she and husband Richard Sullivan, a major fundraiser for Clinton and others, lived in the Washington area.
“They were excited I was running,” Sullivan said of her donors. “They knew me, and they think I will do a good job.”
During the early 2000s, Sullivan served as a fundraiser for former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.
Cooke, who’s taken in $12,271 in funding, is the founder and president of MCH Systems, a Holly Springs-based company that supplies computer systems for use by the military.
Cooke said he knew going into the election that Sullivan and her husband, who is treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association, had a background in fundraising and that she would likely be able to outspend him.
“Fortunately, that doesn’t always matter to the voters,” Cooke said.
Emphasizing her background as a mother and community volunteer, Sullivan is a candidate for one of three slots on the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday’s general-election ballot. County Board of Elections officials don’t keep a comparative count of fundraising totals, but Sullivan’s totals were likely among the highest seen for a board slot. Another round of disclosures comes after the election, but as a comparison, board Chair Paul Coble had filed fundraising totals of a little less than $80,000 just before the 2010 election.
Coble faced a hard-fought challenge from local Democratic party leader Jack Nichols in a race that could have changed the balance of power on the seven-member body. The board controls a budget of more than $900 million and oversees services for a population nearing 1 million people. This year’s elections are all for seats held by Democrats. Even with a sweep, the Democrats won’t be able to flip the board away from GOP control.
“It strikes me as a lot of money in a very low-profile race that is not going to change the body from one party to another,” said Claude Pope, a former chairman of the Wake County Republican Party.
Cooke’s donors included state Rep. Nelson Dollar, former county board Chair Gary Pendleton, Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, and current board member Tony Gurley. Gurley congratulated Sullivan on her fundraising while acknowledging they would likely have political differences if she is elected.
“That doesn’t bother me that she’s raising money from people outside of Wake,” Gurley said. “After trying to raise money, I don’t hold it against anybody. She’s obviously a better fundraiser than I am.”
Among Sullivan’s donors was Joyce Abousie, who was listed as giving $4,000 in the most recent round of campaign finance disclosures. Abousie heads St. Louis-based Telephone Contact Inc., described as a voter contact, telemarketing and direct mail firm. According to the company’s website, Abousie has worked on more than 500 political campaigns in management and consultant roles.
“She was at my wedding,” Sullivan said. “A lot of these people know that I’m a hard worker and have a good heart and will.”
Sullivan said she does not want to climb higher on the electoral ladder and does not expect to be asked for political favors from donors.
“I don’t think Erskine Bowles wants anything from me,” she said.
Caroline and Richard Sullivan moved to Raleigh in the early 2000s. In 1997, Richard Sullivan underwent questioning by then-Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, during hearings on illegal contributions by foreign nationals. During the 1996 campaign season, Sullivan was finance director of the Democratic National Committee.
The late Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote in 1997 that Richard Sullivan, then 33, seemed to be “the designated fall guy for the Democratic National Committee,” getting sympathy from members of both parties during hearings on the contributions.
In Wake County, six-term incumbent Betty Lou Ward came in second in the fundraising race, based on the latest campaign finance reports, with about $33,000. Her Republican opponent, mortgage broker Paul Fitts, had raised $11,450.96.
Democrat James West is unopposed in his quest to take a full-time seat on the board after being appointed to fill the term of Harold Webb, who became ill during the current term.
Staff researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this story.