Big-money manipulation barreled into rural county politics in August, when an expensive push poll promoting a pro-growth agenda rang in from San Diego. Faced with a choice between progressive incumbent Commissioner Gary Phillips and his challenger, the formerly Republican Bunkey Morgan, a builder-friendly conservative who changed parties and addresses to run, Chatham voters were asked: "How likely would you be to support a county commissioner who gave in to environmental interests and voted down a major development project?" and "How likely would you be to support a county commissioner who wants to stop growth?"
The spin of the poll questions, including negative insinuations about Phillips' character and praise for Morgan's business career, points to a pro-development sponsor. The most obvious potential culprit is Newland Communities, the real estate corporation that proposed the largest development in county history. Led by Phillips, the commissioners unanimously rejected the Briar Chapel subdivision plan, which would have put 2,500 houses, commercial and retail development on 1,500 acres, creating the largest "town" in Chatham County.
The May 20 vote, topped off with a standing ovation by citizens, seemed to put the kibosh on Newland's multimillion-dollar profiteering. But The Independent has learned Newland hasn't crawled back to California in defeat --just the opposite. County land records show the company still holds options on several large tracts of land, and just last month spent $1.3 million to close the purchase of 106 acres along Andrew Store Road.
"That absolutely said they aren't going anywhere," says Chatham resident and real estate broker Lynn Hayes. "Whatever they're doing, they're doing very quietly."
With $169 million in operating revenue, the backing of Hunt Oil magnate Ray Hunt and the deep pockets of wealthy investment partners, Newland Communities can afford to spend millions acquiring land, and, presumably, influencing public opinion. Other, albeit more circumstantial, evidence also seems to implicate Newland. The polling company is based in San Diego, right next door to La Jolla, Calif., Newland's national headquarters. Also, an employee of Roni Hicks and Associates, the San Diego PR firm Newland pays to promote the Briar Chapel development, was one of only two non-Chathamites to request a list of registered voters' contact information from the county Board of Elections at the end of July.
But a Newland spokeswoman vows the company isn't interfering in local politics.
"We haven't been involved in a push poll, have not authorized a push poll, have not paid for a push poll, have no knowledge of a push poll. How else can I say this?" says Diane Gaynor, of Roni Hicks and Associates. Her staff requested the updated voter list for its ongoing direct mailings on behalf of Briar Chapel, she says. However, her firm did do "some polling, about a month ago." She says they called about 100 Chatham residents to ask their opinions on "land use," but did not mention individual political candidates or the upcoming commissioners' election.
Cary conservative political consultant Nelson Dollar was the other outsider requesting a voter contact list from the elections board this summer. Dollar, a Wake County resident who has praised Morgan within Chatham's online community, also insists he's not involved in the push poll.
Competitive Edge Research and Communications, the conservative San Diego polling firm, isn't saying who their client is, or much else about their work in Chatham County.
"I'm sure you can understand why we have a policy of not discussing the private polling we do for our clients," says John Nienstedt, the founder of CERC, whose clients include high-profile Republicans and the National Association of Home Builders.
Polls that feign asking questions but actually seek to spin public opinion aren't illegal, and private companies aren't obliged to reveal their clients, so the mystery of who's behind the phone calls becomes the latest intriguing chapter in the hotly contested campaign for control of Chatham County--and its growth patterns.
Three of the five commissioners' seats are up for grabs, but the District 4 competition between Phillips and Morgan has dominated headlines and community chat, both on-line and off. Morgan's qualification as a District 4 resident has been a matter of much debate (see "Is There a Price on Gary Phillips' Head?" March 6, 2002).
And while Morgan has campaigned on his success as a self-made businessman (he owns four car washes), public records in several Triangle counties show a string of financial problems over the last decade, including a 1996 default on a $375,000 business loan and failure to pay more than $60,000 in federal income and business-related taxes since 1988. (He eventually settled his debts to Uncle Sam in 1998.)
Meanwhile, Phillips' critics have mounted personal attacks on his resume and character, saying he shouldn't call himself a UNC-Chapel Hill Morehead Scholar since he earned the scholarship but didn't complete his degree until many years later, and flaunting his recent separation from his wife as a moral issue.
Phillips' backers include northern Chatham's progressives, including environmental activists and slow-growth advocates. Morgan has drawn support from conservative Democrats and many Republicans, who apparently have been abandoning their party affiliation so they can influence the Democratic primary on Sept. 10. County elections office records show 392 voters registering as or switching to "unaffiliated" since Jan. 1, including dozens who crowded into the tiny elections office Aug. 16, the deadline to make the change. If turnout holds true to previous primaries at about 30 percent, about 5,500 of the county's 18,491 Democrats and 2,800 of the 9,392 Republicans will vote, meaning those 392 unaffiliated voters--who can vote in either primary--could have significant impact on who's at the reins while Chatham's growth pressures mount.
"The decisions we make in the next four years will affect us for the next 40," Phillips says.