Two years ago, Chatham County's sprawl lobby--with a little help from sympathizers in the greater Triangle--successfully shepherded their chosen candidate, Bunkey Morgan, into office. Business leaders, real estate and development interests and other pro-growth forces worked behind the scenes to prop up Morgan's candidacy in the county's most divisive race in recent history, which pitted growth-control advocates against those calling for more jobs, more houses and more tax base.
If candidate Mary Wallace's campaign Web site is any indication, this year's race for two of the five seats promises more of the same.
Wallace's site, www.vote4marywallace.org, is owned and run by brokers at the ReMax Southern Advantage real estate firm in Pittsboro, according to internet registration records. The firm was one of the key players in the 2002 election, when principals Anne Hedgecock and Scott Thomas created and bankrolled a political action committee that ran pro-growth and pro-Morgan newspaper ads and sent slick mailers to county households.
Records show Wallace's site is registered to Hedgecock at the ReMax office's Pittsboro address, with Hedgecock's son-in-law and ReMax colleague Barrett Powell listed as its technical administrator.
State elections laws prohibit corporations from donating to candidates, including both cash and in-kind donations of services or goods.
"In this case, if the company were clearly paying for this Web site, it would be an in-kind donation and it would be prohibited," said state elections board staffer Amy Strange. "Company employees on company time doing work directly for a candidate also would count as a corporate donation, and be prohibited."
Wallace was unable to answer questions about her website's ownership and expenses, except to say Powell set it up initially and her campaign had hired a web designer to help him. She said she was unaware of where the site was hosted or who owns it, and didn't know if her campaign had paid or planned to pay Powell for either his own work or for the standard costs of maintaining a Web site, such as server space charges and domain registration fees.
"I'm not involved with keeping up with the financial end of things," she said.
For his part, Powell said he personally created Wallace's Web site--as well as his firm's official site at www.remaxsouthernadvantage.com--and listed Hedgecock and the real estate company as the official owners on the registration form because "you can't leave it blank."
A former IBM staffer, Powell said he likes to do Web sites and that he worked for Wallace on his own time. He said he personally pays "about $14 a month" for Wallace's domain name, the actual Web address. Powell said he plans to be reimbursed by her campaign for the monthly fee, and he expects to charge "less than $100" for his set-up work.
Candidates must report all campaign income and expenditures to the county elections board in periodic reports; the first one of this election season is due April 26.
A former town council member and mayor in Pittsboro, Wallace is one of two candidates so far to announce runs for the July 20 Democratic primary in District 2, which covers the southeastern portion of Chatham. Incumbent Margaret Pollard intends to step down. Citizen activist and retired Navy officer Mike Cross has also joined the race, which is sure to put growth issues front and center.
Two years ago, the Concerned Citizens and Business Community Committee PAC organized by Hedgecock and Thomas was one of several groups targeting incumbent growth-control advocate Gary Phillips in the District 4 Democratic primary race , where Morgan was the challenger. (See "Paradise Tossed," Jan. 7, 2004, www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-01-07/cover.html.) County elections records show Hedgecock, Thomas and fellow ReMax agent Linda Jacobs each contributed $1,614 of their own money to the PAC, which also hosted a fund-raiser for Morgan and incumbent Carl Outz, charging $10 a plate. The group bought newspaper ads and $1,733 worth of mailers designed by Wake County conservative campaign consultant Nelson Dollar and gave Morgan and Outz each $390 in cash, according to records. Jacobs, the PAC treasurer, disbanded the group in November 2002, according to records.
But last fall, the PAC's name appeared at the bottom of half-page ads in local papers, which touted the benefits of development with a declaration that "Bigger is Better!" The ads drew ire from citizens overwhelmed by the flood of new residential and commercial projects being approved in northeast Chatham, where the Triangle's more populous counties are sprawling across county lines. Chatham's commissioners, who make land-use and planning decisions, include a growth-friendly majority, thanks to the 2002 election.
Wallace said she feels "no pressure" to make decisions that suit a pro-growth agenda.
"I'm my own person and I vote on the issues and the facts. I don't have control over who supports me--if business is supporting me, that's fine with me," she said.
Her Web site technician is outspoken in frequent posts to Chatham's on-line bulletin board. Under the handle "wbpo," (his first name is William) Barrett Powell often criticizes growth-control advocates. His take on the last county election, from a March 17 post: "We quitely (sic) gathered the silent majority in the county who were tired of seeing our county highjacked (sic) by a bunch of liberal dictators, and showed them how to empower themselves, and took back the county. And as long as you all fight EVERY development and try to take away the property rights of land owners in Chatham County you will continue to alienate yourselves from the majority."
ReMax Southern Advantage makes no secret of its involvement in the local political scene, either. Its Website includes this statement of its corporate mission: "Whether it is helping shape the landscape of local politics, donating time and money to charitable organizations, helping out in our community, or assisting a family to relocate to a better quality of life, ReMax Southern Advantage is more than just a real estate company."