Interloper threatens to spoil inaugural ball

cjarvis@newsobserver.comDecember 8, 2012 

  • Inaugural events Jan. 5: Prayer service at Christ Episcopal Church in Raleigh, followed by Gov.-elect Pat McCrory’s swearing-in ceremony at noon at Old Senate Chamber. Jan. 10: Council of State reception at Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 6-8:30 p.m.; Rock the Ball at the Lincoln Theatre, 9 p.m. to midnight. Jan. 11: Governor’s reception, 6-7:30 p.m.; gala presentation, 8-9 p.m., inaugural ball, 9 p.m. to midnight, all at the Raleigh Convention Center. Jan. 12: Inaugural address at Capitol Square at 11 a.m.; parade in downtown Raleigh at 12:30 p.m.; open house at Executive Mansion at 1 p.m.; inauguration celebration at 8:30 p.m. in Raleigh Convention Center.

— Over the past 80 years the Junior League of Raleigh has hosted 20 inaugural balls for the state’s governors. The celebration is by far the group’s biggest fundraiser, which in turn provides hundreds of thousands of dollars for community programs like child-abuse prevention.

But a last-minute competitor is horning in on next month’s festivities: A new nonprofit political organization tied to Gov.-elect Pat McCrory will throw its own party as a fundraiser to promote conservative issues.

Some are worried that the Saturday night “inauguration celebration” at the Raleigh Convention Center on Jan. 12 could divert money from the Junior League’s inaugural ball the night before in the same location, or confuse potential ticket-buyers about which event to attend.

“I’ve spoken to people in the community who said they received an invitation from this other group and they were kind of confused,” said Jeanne Bonds, a Junior Leaguer and Democratic activist.

“I think in the past we may have made close to $1 million off this event. If there are going to be multiple events from competing organizations, and if you’re interested in the new governor’s policy agenda, you’d want to buy a table at his C4 (the IRS designation for a “social welfare” nonprofit, 501(c)(4)). I think it will be dramatically cut. It might be a tenth of what it was before.”

But that’s not what The Foundation for North Carolina intends, said one of its founders, McCrory campaign strategist, Jack Hawke. The plan was put together quickly following McCrory’s victory, Hawke said Friday.

Incorporation papers were filed with the state two weeks after the election, using a commercial condominium in Raleigh owned by Hawke as its office address, and its solicitation license was just approved Wednesday.

Hawke said the organization hasn’t collected any money yet. But according to state records, it anticipates taking in $600,000 in the final weeks of this year and has targeted raising an additional $900,000 next year. It will operate with an executive director and other staff, while pushing a free-market agenda, records show.

“We’re going into a period of change in North Carolina with tremendous issues confronting the state,” Hawke said. “We have a newly elected governor who’s interested in some basic reforms. The thought of this organization is we will be able to do some independent research on some of the reforms, and perhaps promote those reforms to the people of North Carolina. It’ll be a challenging time.”

Hawke said organizers looked at similar nonprofit operations benefitting governors Andrew Cuomo in New York, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Chris Christie in New Jersey.

The use of these organizations – known as 501(c)(4) for the IRS designation as a “social welfare” nonprofit – has evolved in recent years from traditional charitable organizations into political entities. They are able to raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing their donors. Some then contribute unlimited anonymous money to super PACs, which in turn can spend unlimited funds to elect or promote candidates.

The Foundation for N.C. will host a $1,000-a-ticket private reception for McCrory before its inauguration celebration, which costs $75, and features music by the bands Chairmen of the Board and The Blue Dogs.

“It’s designed to be more of a party than a celebration,” Hawke said. “It’s to be a fun evening, not in any way to be a formal ball or to be a formal state-like function.”

He said this isn’t the first time there’s been a party separate from the Junior League, citing one of Republican Gov. Jim Martin’s inauguration parties.

But by the time the new nonprofit group decided to use the inauguration for a fundraiser, the Junior League had already sent out packets soliciting volunteers and contributions, at levels of up to $15,000.

Pat Wilkins, the Junior League of Raleigh’s president, on Friday preferred to emphasize its event rather than discuss concerns over the competition.

“We’re focused on our attendance and our ticket sales,” Wilkins said, adding that invitations will be going out next week.

“We’ve done this for different governors no matter Republican or Democrat,” she said. “It’s not about the candidate for us as much as the people of North Carolina. Proceeds go back to benefit the citizens of North Carolina.”

The ball will be focused on the state with a single-mindedness: from its chefs to its food to its wine. On Friday, the league announced a coup for the Friday night event: Grammy-nominated folk rock group The Avett Brothers, who hail from Concord.Besides the Friday night festivities – a reception with the governor for $150, the gala presentation for $200, or the ball itself for $125 – there is a $125 Thursday night reception and a $20 concert for the newly elected members of the Council of State.

Money raised at the Junior League’s inauguration events has been used to start SAFEchild, a child-abuse prevention organization, and the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club, for Hispanic children, and a training center for community leaders.

Wilkins noted the Junior League lists all of its financial sponsors on its website. “We are very transparent,” she said.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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