Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Bond campaign has been quietly gearing up

About $4.5 million is included for improvements on state trails, including the Mountains to Sea Trail that stretches across North Carolina for more than 900 miles. Above, a hiker uses the trail near the Bodie Island Light House.
About $4.5 million is included for improvements on state trails, including the Mountains to Sea Trail that stretches across North Carolina for more than 900 miles. Above, a hiker uses the trail near the Bodie Island Light House. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Aside from a flurry of public appearances two months ago when Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill putting his $2 billion bond referendum on the 2016 primary ballot, the campaign to build voter support has been almost invisible. That’s about to change.

Organizers have spent the time quietly setting up a statewide campaign structure and have begun soliciting financial contributions. They hope to raise $3.3 million and say they are nearly halfway there.

The money will pay for advertising, social media, mailers and phone calls. It will also put people into communities organizing meetings with those who would benefit from the bond package, which includes funds for universities and community colleges, agricultural research, water and sewer improvements, upgrades for the National Guard, state zoo and state parks.

From the start, the campaign was going to be under a tight schedule. It took much of the year for McCrory to sell his plan for buildings and road improvements to the legislature, which eventually agreed to a curtailed version that didn’t include highway projects. That happened just in time for the March 15 ballot, which includes primary elections for governor, council of state and General Assembly seats.

With weeks, not months, of startup time, the campaign has had to work fast. Republican campaign strategist Chris Sinclair, who along with Democratic strategist Brad Crone is working on the effort, says the short time frame coinciding with a high-profile election that is driving up TV advertising costs has created “unprecedented” circumstances. Reaching as many people as quickly as possible to sell them on the benefits became the driving strategy.

“This bond is so rich in terms of preparing us for the future, it’s not just bricks and mortar, it’s the future of the job market,” Sinclair said. “The bond itself is a unique package in terms of how everything fits together. As much as it was rushed to get passed, a lot of thought went into that.”

Sinclair said a goal of $1.5 million raised by the end of the year is close to being met. A sizable contribution from software giant SAS came through earlier this month.

The governor put together a bipartisan campaign team of wealthy and prominent figures, influential and connected co-chairs, and a trio of hands-on organizers who have been coordinating field efforts over the past three weeks. In November, the Connect N.C. Committee registered with the state Board of Elections as a referendum committee.

A separate entity, Connect NC Invest in Our Future, has registered with the secretary of state as a tax-exempt corporation. Holtzman Vogel Josefiak, a Virginia law firm that specializes in elections and boasts prominent national Republican politicians and organizations among its clients, advised the campaign on setting up the committees.

Sinclair says the nonprofit committee will not raise funds for the referendum committee, which will raise money on its own. If it did, the source of financial contributions would not be publicly known.

So far there is no known organized opposition. Even Americans for Prosperity, an organization that has opposed government borrowing measures across the country, is sitting this one out.

“And we’re not making a statement by not weighing in on it,” said Donald Bryson, AFP state director. “We just have finite resources and there’s only so much we can do.”

In October, the state Democratic Party raised concerns about whether the bond campaign would become a vehicle for McCrory’s re-election. The party called on him not to appear in any advertising for it. The bond referendum is an important part of what the governor sees as his first-term accomplishments.

In late October, Michael Weisel, an election law attorney in Raleigh who says he has clients who could be involved in the bond issue, asked the state Board of Elections for direction on whether a candidate could work with pro-bond groups to support the referrendum by appearing in their ads. The elections board executive director issued an advisory this month saying that would be prohibited because those groups can raise unlimited money from corporate contributors, which is off limits to candidates.

Referendum organizers questioned that opinion, indicating they planned to use politicians from both parties to illustrate bipartisan support for the bond and said some of them could be candidates on the 2016 ballot, although the purpose of the ads wouldn’t be to benefit their campaigns.

On Friday, Executive Director Kim Strach issued a clarification, saying the referendum committee can use candidates’ photos, statements, even videos that they have appeared in — so long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates’ campaigns. They can use material already in the public sphere.

Referendum committees are permitted to raise unlimited contribution from individuals and corporations, but candidate committees have a limit on individual contributions and they cannot take money from corporations. Candidate committees cannot accept contributions from referendum committees that raise funds from corporations, labor unions, professional associations and certain others.

Bond supporters argued that coordinated efforts between the referendum committee and the candidates wouldn’t constitute a contribution because the resulting advertising wouldn’t specifically support their candidacy. Strach disagreed but acknowledged there is a legal gray area.

Staff writer

Craig Jarvis