Discord grows in Wake commissioner race, with an election complaint and claims of bullying

Wake County voters head to the polls for early voting

Voters have a full slate of democratic candidates for Wake County Commissioner with a total of ten candidates vying for five seats. Several locations around Wake County offer early voting ahead of next week’s May 8th primary.
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Voters have a full slate of democratic candidates for Wake County Commissioner with a total of ten candidates vying for five seats. Several locations around Wake County offer early voting ahead of next week’s May 8th primary.

The contentious Democratic primary for Wake County commissioner seats — just days away — intensified Friday, with a complaint filed with the Board of Elections against four challengers and an incumbent being accused of threatening behavior.

Late Friday afternoon, David Bland, a former North Carolina Democratic Party treasurer, filed a petition against the campaign committees of challengers Lindy Brown, Jeremiah Pierce, Susan Evans and Vickie Adamson, against several of their donors including Dean Debnam and Ann Campbell, and against several political action committees.

The primary is Tuesday, May 8.

In the four-page complaint, Bland says that Debnam, his wife, Sesha, Campbell and her husband, John, and possibly others have violated state laws barring excessive campaign contributions. The complaint also alleges that the committees of the four Democratic challengers failed to report in-kind contributions.

"I ask that you treat this matter with the utmost urgency, because these activities are having an immediate and negative effect on the integrity of the current primary," Bland wrote in his complaint.

Dean Debnam said the complaint is without merit and "a desperate attempt by desperate candidates to muddy the water before the vote on May 8."

Because the complaint is concerning campaign finance reports, it was sent to the North Carolina Board of Elections office.

"Our campaign finance staff received the complaint this afternoon but have not had a chance to look into it," said Pat Gannon, the elections board spokesman. "This complaint, like all of the others we receive in the days before the election, will be looked into as soon as possible."

Campaign finance reports show that the Debnams each donated the maximum allowed, $5,200 each, to the campaigns of Adamson, Brown and Evans, and Dean Debnam donated $2,500 to Pierce's campaign. The Campbells each donated $5,200 to the campaigns of Adamson and Evans and $5,000 each to Brown's campaign.

The complaint outlines that those donors may have also donated the maximum to each other's political action committees.

"The evidence suggests they have also violated state law by 'giving in the name of another,'" according to the complaint.

Campbell helped create and chairs the Women Awake Political Action Committee, which has endorsed Adamson, Brown, Evans and Wake County Commissioner Chairwoman Jessica Holmes.

Of the $24,900 in contributions to the Women Awake PAC, $10,400 came from the Campbells, $5,200 came from Dean Debnam, and $5,200 came from John Wilson, a retired executive director of the National Education Association. The PAC donated in-kind mailers to the campaigns of Adamson, Holmes, Evans and Brown, according to campaign finance reports, but it was not listed as contributions for the candidates.

Debnam's PAC, Wake Citizens for Good Government, also contributed in-kind mailers and a list of emails to the campaigns of Evans, Brown, Adamson, Pierce and James West, an incumbent who is also facing a primary. Those were also not listed as contributions for the candidates in their campaign reports.

The complaint also says that the NCAE PAC and RWCA passed out fliers advocating for the election of Pierce, Brown, Evans and Adamson and those candidates were seen handing those fliers out during early voting and thus were "openly coordinating with these organizations."

Michael Weisel, an attorney representing Women Awake PAC and Wake Citizens for Good Government, said information in the complaint was gathered using public reporting by his clients.

"My clients have scrupulously followed all applicable campaign finance laws and regulations regarding their spending and have been advised by counsel throughout this process," he said in a statement. "This appears to be a last-minute diversion by candidates who are not comfortable with critical public debate."

Evans, who is running against incumbent Erv Portman, called the complaint "completely off-based" and was "incensed" at any accusation saying she or her campaign had done something improper.

"I think these charges won't hold," she said. "Whether I agree or disagree with the positions that these PACs have taken, I don't get to weigh in on that. I don't control what they do, and I don't control these big donors. Whether or not I like the power they bring to the table, nobody really asked me, you know?"

Voters have a full slate of democratic candidates for Wake County Commissioner with a total of ten candidates vying for five seats. Several locations around Wake County offer early voting ahead of next week’s May 8th primary.

'Bullying behavior'

Earlier Friday, Adamson, who is seeking the Wake County commissioner District 7 seat, said she was left shaken and frightened after being threatened by her opponent, incumbent John Burns, during a get-out-the-vote forum Wednesday.

In an open letter to Burns, a fellow Democrat, Adamson writes that she will not "continue to tolerate" his bullying and will not let him bully other women or Wake County residents.

"Although I have heard of your quick temper, I am admittedly surprised by your behavior during this campaign," Adamson said in her Facebook post. "Many folks have noticed that you are quick to confront, intimidate, or bully a woman, but your diplomacy emerges when talking to a man. Now that I have experienced your bullying behavior first hand, it is time to confront you."

Burns admitted that he's passionate about his beliefs and "sometimes too direct" but said he's never been a bully and that some people may not like "being told directly" that he disagrees with them. He said he doesn't treat women any differently from how he treats men.

It's heartbreaking, Burns said, that his daughter on her 14th birthday has to "read such a misrepresentation of her father" and that it was hard to accept this portrayal of him so close to the Tuesday primary.

"My whole work has been to make it a world where she can live up to her full potential in which her potential is endless," he said. "Heartbreaking is the only word I can come up with. It's totally against anything I've worked with before and people who know me and women who have worked with me know it's just not true."

The incident occurred at the Carolina Ale House in Brier Creek during a forum organized by Wake County Democratic First Vice Chairman Charles Stephenson. Each group of candidates was given the chance to speak, including Burns and Adamson.

"During her presentation, John interrupted her a couple of times while she was speaking," Stephenson said. "Which I think was more rude than bullying. And then once we admonished him, he kind of pulled back. I think basically it was a political debate, and I think very intense, very spirited and sometimes they can get out of hand, out of control. But our moderator did a very good job maintaining civility and peace, if you will."

It was after they made their case to the audience that Adamson said she and Burns spoke. Adamson said she felt threatened and that Burns warned her that he was "holding back" and she would regret what she'd said.

Adamson, Burns said, implied that he didn't care about school shootings because of his vote on the current year's budget.

"I've been in politics a long time," he said. "That may be the most reprehensible argument I have ever heard a politician make. And I told her that and asked her to stop, as I have before. I thought that was a disgusting argument and I'd lost respect for her."

He, along with four other commissioners, voted to approve a budget that didn't give the Wake County Public School System everything it said it needed. The only two commissioners who voted against the budget are the same two who aren't facing a Democratic challenger in the primary.

Throughout the campaign, Burns said he has tried to stick to his record and the facts. If she continued to attack him, he told Adamson, he was going to fight back.

Adamson's husband, Mark, said he saw the exchange but couldn't hear what was said. His wife, he said, was visibility shaken after the talk and said she'd been threatened. The day after the forum, he went on her behalf to a different meet-and-greet event because she believed Burns would be there.

Her letter also said that Burns and a handful of friends had tweeted at her so much that she had to take down her Twitter account and that Burns and his supporters were regularly commenting on her Facebook page "often with the condescending or mocking tone" she says Burns was known for.

"I am a little taken aback that she would say that it's because of me that she has trouble dealing with criticism on Twitter and Facebook," Burns said. "That is really part of the job that she is trying out for."

He pointed to a tweet earlier this year where Adamson was criticized and he stuck up for her.

Holmes is the sole female on the county board and the only candidate up for re-election who doesn't face any challengers, either in the primary or the November election. When asked whether she'd been bullied by Burns or seen other women bullied by Burns, she had no comment.

"Regardless of who comes out of the primary, I stand ready and willing to work with those individuals and do what we were all elected to do," Holmes said. "The same thing will stand in the fall whether it's Democrats or Republicans or a mix. I stand ready to do the people's work, which is what we were elected to do. In a lot of ways, I feel like in local government, partisanship is less of an issue. We deal more in people and taking care of people, and that is irregardless of party labels."

'Primaries are tough'

Rebecca Llewelyn, chairwoman of the Wake County Democratic Party, didn't arrive at the forum until after Burns and Adamson spoke, and she emphasized that she and the party did not take sides during the primary. But, she said, she's known Burns for several years and knows he has a "good heart."

"I have never had occasion to think of him as a bully," she said in an email. "Primaries are tough. They pit people against each other that are usually on the same side. At the end of the day we are all fighting for the same ideals. We just may have different views on how to achieve our goals. I hope that everyone will take a deep breath and do our best to get through the primary next week. I look forward to our being able to move forward together once again."

Things became increasingly tense this week starting with a mailer and website accusing four incumbents of wanting to "bail out a failing golf course" for a controversial park in Southern Wake County. The mailer and website was funded by the Wake Citizens for Good Government PAC, and Burns called on Adamson to denounce the mailer.

On Wednesday, Matt Calabria, the incumbent for District 2 running against Brown, criticized a post that appeared on her Facebook page that said, in part, "say no to continuous tax hikes." The post was later deleted and Brown said she's asking Facebook to investigate who posted the article.

Anna Johnson; 919-829-4807; @anna_m_johnson

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