One candidate has received substantial funds from out-of-state interests, including a financier linked to corruption investigations. The other candidate has taken money from slews of lobbyists and at least one politically damaging constituency.
So goes the most contested mayor's race in years.
With about $29,000 on hand Aug. 28, state Rep. Beverly Earle has raised a mere fraction of McCrory's totaled $595,000. Yet it's not the zeros on the checks that are so interesting in this race as it is the names on them.
Take Earle, for instance. As a generally liberal House of Representatives member, she received donations from payday lenders, a group usually loathed by consumer advocacy groups. And then she spearheaded a bill that would've approved high-interest loans. Filed not long after payday lenders were ushered from North Carolina, the Credit Enhancement Services Act would have differed from payday loans by allowing periodic reporting to credit bureaus so on-time payments could improve debtors' credit history. And borrowers could then qualify for lower interest rates.
But the bill, which never made it out of committee, was strongly derided by consumer groups who charged the loans it would authorize had potential to be as predatory as the ones they replaced. "You had the capability of charging the same [annual percentage rate] as the payday lender," says Chris Kukla, director of legislative affairs for the N.C. Center for Responsible Lending. "So we saw it at the time as, here's a payday lender who just got kicked out of the state ... trying to get back."
Earle did not respond to a request for comment. The roster of donors to her mayoral campaign is comprised mostly of local professionals -- attorneys, business owners and bankers -- affluent, yet generally not wealthy.
As a House member, she received numerous donations from lobbyists before Jan. 1, when state law began barring lobbyists from giving campaign contributions. (Candidates still can receive monies from industry groups and political action committees.) "It's a campaign finance system that's broken, that forces out candidates to raise money and frequently, the places they raise money are those folks who are invested in the system," says Bob Phillips, co-founder of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
The constituencies her donors represented included such disparate groups as a sweet potato farmers' organization, the Pet Food Institute, Lorillard Tobacco, Eli Lilly and Resident Lenders of North Carolina.
Then there's McCrory. While Earle has received checks from a developer or two, McCrory got oodles of donations from big developers, including Daniel Levine, owner of several Uptown parking lots and buildings; John Shea of Shea Homes; and John Crosland III of Crosland, among others. In February alone, McCrory netted $9,000 from political action committees, including Bank of America, Lowe's and Wachovia.
But it's his out-of-state donations that have drawn most attention from local Democrats, such as party chief Michael Evans (also Earle's campaign treasurer).
Elliott Broidy, a California financier and venture capitalist, donated $4,000 in February, as did his wife, Robin Rosenzweig Broidy. The couple donates to many candidates, usually Republicans, across the country.
Broidy, who also sits with McCrory on the Homeland Security Advisory Council, is part of an ongoing investigation in New York where authorities are examining whether associates of a former state comptroller improperly repeated benefits from his control of the state's pension fund, The New York Times has reported. Broidy is chairman of Markstone Capital, one of the companies in which the comptroller invested state money.
McCrory points out that other people from the council donated money. "They got a chance to know me, and they said if you run for re-election we'd love to support you," McCrory says.
One is Herb Kelleher, president of Southwest Airlines; he gave $4,000 in July. In 2005, the executive told TV news reporters and The Charlotte Observer that the company had interest in Charlotte. If Southwest came to Charlotte, the low-cost airline could hurt financially troubled US Airways.
McCrory says the Broidys, like other out-of-state donors, have no personal stakes in Charlotte. But local developers and other donors most certainly do. Ted Arrington, a political science professor at UNC-Charlotte, says such donors "at a minimum" expect access. "There's no doubt in my mind that when a neighborhood group goes up against a developer who's contributed heavily to the campaigns for mayor or city council, that it's not a fair contest," Arrington says. "You don't accept large amounts from somebody and then really psychologically, deep in your heart, treat them equally to somebody who's never contributed. It's not human nature."
He continues, "That doesn't mean that the developers always get what they want and the neighborhood always loses. You can push it too far."