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Duct-taped woman, Donald Trump comparisons. Raleigh election mailers go negative.

Some Raleigh City Council candidates are condemning controversial election mailers that not only are critical of them, but contain an image of a woman with her mouth taped shut and comparisons to President Donald Trump.

But the Triangle Government Alliance, a Super PAC and nonprofit advocacy organization affiliated with the Triangle Apartment Association, stands by their mailers and their contents.

“The reaction has been mixed,” said Dustin Engelken, Government Affairs Director for the association. “There have been some negative reactions to it. But we stand by the message.”

The Alliance sent out about a dozen of the mailers before the Oct. 8 election.

The only negative ads have been in District B (northeast Raleigh), represented by council member David Cox, and District E (northwest Raleigh), which is represented by Stef Mendell., Engelken said. Both are seeking re-election, and each face a challenger. They have condemned the mailers and the negative tone of the alliance.

“For the folks in those districts who are concerned about the tone, I would encourage them to plug in to what their council members have been doing,” Engelken said. “I think the negativity that have emanated from those districts did not start from us. And I think that everything we have talked about have been factually supported and we stand by the message. That these people are bad for council, bad for the city and that we need change.”

Housing affordability, the city’s growth and neighborhood protection have dominated the discussion among candidates and voters headed into Tuesday’s election.

When Mendell joined the board in 2017, the council shifted to what critics call a slow-growth mindset, though those council members argue they consider themselves “pro-smart growth” and are focused on neighborhood protection.

The alliance has over 1,000 members, including property managers, real estate brokers and developers, and is focused on growth and other housing issues.

David Cox Mailer
One of the mailers sent by the Triangle Government Alliance to some Raleigh residents. Submitted

Negative campaign mailers

All of the eight seats on council are up for re-election and six incumbents — including Cox and Mendell — are looking to keep their seats.

In one of the Triangle Government Alliance mailers targeting Cox, a photo of him appears next to a photo of Trump with the words “David Cox is a bully and we’ve got enough bullies in politics right now.” It references an Indy Week article in which former Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin criticized Cox for attacking city staff on social media.

“We have enough politicians who use social media to bully people and throw their weight around,” the mailer says.

Baldwin is running for mayor.

A second mailer has a photo of a woman with duct tape over her mouth with the words “David Cox thinks you should shut up.” It references the council’s unanimous vote to keep residents from addressing individual council members during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Council member Nicole Stewart were absent during the vote.)

On Facebook, Cox condemned that mailer for its “disrespect and, frankly, depiction of violence against women.”

“I have three younger sisters and my mom had eight,” he wrote. “Nothing is more disturbing and deplorable to me than a young woman with duct tape over her mouth.”

Cox’s challenger, Brian Fitzsimmons, also condemned the mailer on social media. The language and picture were “abhorrent,” he said. He added that he didn’t know about the mailer being sent out.

“But rhetoric like this does nothing to make any sort of positive change, and it needs to stop,” he said. “This was wrong not because I have a sister, a wife, or friends who are women. It was wrong because it was wrong. Women have more value than their relationships with men.”

Mailers targeting Mendell

The mailers targeting Mendell have called her a “self-serving politician” and someone who is standing “between Raleigh families and home ownership.” Another has a photo of two older adults who look concerned accompanied by the words, “For Stef Mendell, seniors can be an inconvenience.”

Those mailers reference the council’s vote for short-term rental regulations (homeowners can only rent out a room in their home and if they are home during the short stay) and Mendell expressing concerns she heard from residents about noise from senior housing in residential neighborhoods.

“I think it is really disappointing,” Mendell said of the mailers. “In 2017, we had a nice, clean election that focused on the issues. This is really disappointing. This is Trump-like tactics, where this association has sent out mailers that are full of lies and inaccuracies. And the one with the woman with the duct tape was particularly reprehensible. And what is really disappointing is my opponent has refused to disavow them at all.”

David Knight, who is running against Mendell, has not made any public statements about the mailers on social media. But in a text message to The N&O, he said, “It’s a shame that the TGA, an organization which by law we cannot contact or coordinate with, is sending out negative mailers.”

He said he is proud of his positive campaign “emphasizing my 25 years of experience as an environmental professional.”

Friday night, he posted a statement on his campaign’s Facebook page, repeating what he told The N&O.

Super PAC

A Super PAC is an independent, expenditure-only political committee that is able to receive unlimited contributions from donors and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose a particular candidate, party or election issue. It is against the law for a Super PAC to coordinate with a candidate or vice versa.

The most recent campaign finance report on the state’s website, dated June 30, shows the Triangle Government Alliance had $110,000 in cash at the end of the reporting cycle.

“I think we have tried very hard in every single mail piece we have sent out to document where the claims have come from and, in no case have we made up things,” Engelken said. “I mean we have literally included citations on the mailers. So, personally, if the incumbents and some of their supporters think these are misleading or factually inaccurate, they need to take up those issues with the news articles that were cited.”

Mendell called the claim that she or Cox had been negative “ridiculous.”

“All the things they are saying are lies,” she said. “Does anyone really think I don’t like old people? I mean half the time they are calling me an old person, myself. So I don’t understand where this comes from. There had certainly not been a negative and nasty tone on the part of any of us incumbents. That is a very poor excuse.”

This group has been around for a decade, but this is the first election the PAC has become “actively engaged in,” Engelken said.

“I think that Stef Mendell and David Cox have been the most destructive presence on city council,” he said. “I think the records the both of them have compiled during their time on council speaks for themselves as being anti-growth, anti-development and regressive. And so we were fortunate that those turned into head-to-head races. And those are the areas of change we feel is most important.”

Polls are open Tuesday from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Voting location can be found at ReadyToVote.com.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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