Republican state Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle is facing one of the most heated legislative primary challenges in the state – and most of the fire isn’t coming from his opponent, Lane Burris.
Burris, a retired sheriff’s department captain, doesn’t mention Burr, a four-term incumbent, much on his campaign website. He says he “truly doesn’t like negativity.”
But voters in Stanly and Montgomery counties have been bombarded with mailers from political groups seeking to unseat Burr. The most personal attacks are coming from a Stanly County political action committee formed last year called Citizens for Better Representation.
The PAC has a Facebook page that features an altered image of Burr wearing a crown. And the page accuses him of “selling votes for money and sex” because he’s dating a lobbyist with McGuireWoods Consulting. The group also bases its claim on a $5,000 campaign contribution that Burr received from former UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque, who’s an attorney with the national company’s affiliated law firm.
Burr said in an interview Friday that McGuireWoods lobbyist Sarah Wolfe is his girlfriend. Wolfe, according to N.C. secretary of state filings, represents 10 groups at the legislature, including AAA of the Carolinas, Charter Schools USA and the N.C. Academy of Physician Assistants.
Burr said the romantic relationship isn’t a conflict of interest, because Wolfe’s clients are “not groups that really have a lot of business before the legislature.”
And he disputes the PAC’s claim that his campaign is paying rent to Wolfe for a Raleigh apartment; Burr says he pays rent to an Oberlin Road apartment complex and splits the cost with his roommate, political consultant Zack Almond.
“They’ve done nothing but try to drag me into the mud,” Burr said, noting that the PAC has said it used a private investigator to confirm his relationship with Wolfe. “They basically tried to stalk me and smear my name. It’s sad they can’t talk about issues.”
Last year, the State Ethics Commission ruled that sex between lobbyists and government officials doesn’t constitute a “thing of value” that would violate a ban on gifts from lobbyists.
“Consensual sexual relationships do not have monetary value,” the commission said in its ruling. In 2012, however, then-Speaker Thom Tillis asked a staff member to resign because the staffer was dating a lobbyist.
Gerald Poplin, who’s among the leaders of the PAC, said voters need to know about Burr’s relationship. “He’s just a very bad boy,” Poplin said.
Burr said he suspects the Stanly County PAC is out for “revenge” because he helped unseat the incumbent sheriff, a Democrat. Burr said some members of the group are allies of the ousted sheriff.
On its social media sites, the PAC encourages registered Democrats to change their party registration so they can vote against Burr in the GOP primary. Poplin said hundreds of people have made the switch.
“The damage he’s doing to Stanly County doesn’t just affect Republicans,” Poplin said.
But Burr says it’s wrong for longtime Democrats to interfere in a primary. “We’re having a general election in the primary,” he said.
The PAC isn’t the only group seeking to defeat Burr. The N.C. Chamber of Commerce has sent out mailers backing Burris. The pro-business group said the race is among six legislative primaries where it’s making endorsements, but Burr is the only incumbent targeted. A spokeswoman for the Chamber said Burr’s voting record is out of step with the group’s priorities.
And in the final weeks before the primary, a group called Conservative Future Fund also sent mailers opposing Burr. The group didn’t register with the State Board of Elections until March 7, and Burr said the mailers were sent before that date – a possible violation of election law.
The group’s filing lists the mailing address and phone number of Roger Knight’s Raleigh law office. Knight has represented a number of conservative-leaning groups; he did not return a call seeking comment.
Burr said he thinks the opposition from Raleigh-based groups stems from his high-profile dispute with House Speaker Tim Moore late last year.
In a written announcement of his re-election bid, Burr accused Moore of marginalizing House conservatives and using the “unsuccessful and toxic governing style of former House Speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan.”
Moore quickly fired back, saying that Burr had “chosen to make himself ineffective and irrelevant this entire session.” The two competed for the role of House speaker after Tillis was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“I think they’re just desperate to get this seat in the hands of somebody who will go to Raleigh” and vote more closely in line with House leadership, Burr said.
For his part, Burris said the assistance from outside groups has been “great” and helped “put the information out there” about his opponent.
“It’s been very, very encouraging,” Burris said. “I fully believe that people have had enough.”