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Southern Durham Development tries to influence commissioners' race 

$54,100. To put that number into context, it took hundreds of contributions for Bill Bell to raise that much money for his successful 2007 mayoral bid.

It took hundreds of contributions for Thomas Stith, his opponent, who raised an unprecedented $200,000, to lose.

In the 2012 election, the age of the Super PACs, $54,100 comes from just one source: a Durham-based company that is trying to influence the county commissioners' race.

Southern Durham Development (SDD), which is behind the controversial 751 South project, has dumped this largesse into the coffers of a local Super PAC, the Durham Partnership for Progress. The two organizations are virtually one and the same, linked by Tyler Morris, who is both a majority shareholder in SDD and assistant treasurer of the Partnership, and Alex Mitchell, a principal in SDD.

It's no coincidence that the Durham Partnership for Progress is spending tens of thousands of dollars of SDD's money to support the re-election of three commissioners—Joe Bowser, Brenda Howerton and Michael Page. This slate is composed of the same three commissioners who voted to approve a rezoning that made 751 South possible. The Partnership is also supporting commissioner candidate Rickey Padgett, a captain in the sheriff's office who has spoken in favor of 751 South, a mixed-use project of 1,300 homes, plus retail shops in the sensitive Jordan Lake watershed.

While Super PACs have already influenced national politics—Newt Gingrich stayed in the presidential race largely because of a $16 million injection of cash into a Super PAC, Winning Our Future—their infiltration into Durham politics is new. And the specter of unfettered corporate influence has put political observers on guard. At least a half-dozen complaints have been filed with the Durham Board of Elections, some of them alleging coordination between these four commissioner candidates and the Partnership, particularly at polling places.

As for the candidates, they contend they know nothing of the Partnership's activities. "The first I knew about it, I opened my mail and saw a postcard with my photo on it," Page said.

"I'm getting blowback about something I know nothing about," Howerton said. "I'm upset that people are making this a huge issue."

The 751 project is one of Durham's biggest political stories in the past five years. The issue bitterly divided the community and the county commission. (Incumbent Ellen Reckhow, who is running for re-election, voted against it, and is not being supported by the Partnership.)

The commission majority's support for the project is shaping this election. "I've been an elected official for the past 12 years," Page said of his critics. "Of all the successes and contributions I've made, I don't want to be judged on one vote."

Yet that's precisely what Page's supporters—SDD and the Partnership—have done, potentially to his, Howerton's and Bowser's benefit.

"The message is simple," Mitchell said. "I'm a developer. I believe good things come from development. It builds a tax base. And they supported 751 South."

The Partnership has mailed more than 60,000 postcards emblazoned with the faces of Page, Howerton, Bowser and Padgett, and promises such as "We can improve Durham, without raising taxes." The mailers were sent to Durham residents who voted in a Democratic primary, Mitchell said.

The distribution of these postcards at a polling place is central to one complaint filed earlier this week. It involves an incident last weekend at the board of elections in which Durham Planning Commissioner David Smudski was distributing Partnership postcards at the polls allegedly on behalf of Howerton.

This activity could violate election law prohibiting Super PACs from coordinating with candidates. The N.C. Board of Elections said Monday it is looking into the case.

Smudski told the Indy that he was asked to "show up by a supporter of Howerton. I don't know about the Super PAC. I was just given the flyers. I didn't even see [Durham Partnership for Progress] printed on there."

The Partnership information is printed prominently on one side of the flyer.

However, Howerton denies that Smudski is involved in her campaign. "It's absolutely not true," she said. "He has nothing to do with it."

Mitchell says the Partnership has "played by the book" and that no coordination took place.

"We've been above board and transparent," he said. "What happens after that mailer goes out is none of my business."

The situation at the board of elections that afternoon became murkier when Smudski's colleague on the planning commission, Teiji Kimball, claimed to be covering a story at the polls for the Herald-Sun, but also allegedly called candidates to tell them the Durham People's Alliance, which opposes 751 South, had stationed volunteers there. (The People's Alliance also has a political action committee, but it is not a Super PAC.)

Kimball was wearing Herald-Sun credentials and carrying a camera and interviewed Board of Elections Director Michael Perry, ostensibly for a story about Super PACs. However, Herald-Sun Editor Nancy Wykle told the Indy that Kimball was not on assignment for the paper and had not contributed to it recently.

Kimball told the Indy he is "an independent special correspondent gathering information and data" for a story he plans to "shop around."

Kimball acknowledged he was on the phone to some candidates' campaigns that afternoon, but not about the People's Alliance: "I might have called a lot of campaigns about the Super PACs for a story," Kimball said, adding he has not distributed any material on behalf of candidates. "I have no dog in this fight."

That's not true. According to Howerton's first quarter campaign finance report, Kimball contributed $500 to her campaign, which has raised $5,817 this election cycle, not counting the cash she had on hand. An additional $350 in contributions came from lawyers with K&L Gates, the firm that first represented SDD on 751 South.

Big money, specifically corporate PAC money, has been a staple of local and state politics. In the early 2000s, long before the Citizens United ruling, a huge influx of campaign dollars from the state homebuilders association flowed into the war chests of several Chatham County Commissioner candidates. As a result, a pro-development candidate slate was elected.

But Super PACs give corporations new, and essentially unchecked, instruments of power, says Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC, a political watchdog group.)

The court ruling "gives a green light for corporations to feel empowered to throw their money around and abuse voters with their institutional agenda," Hall said. "There are individual people behind those decisions but it's corporation money that is gained through the marketplace. The problem is you're making politics a matter of who has the most money and turning [elections] into auctions."

"It's my right to express my opinion," Mitchell said. "It's getting our message across in the most transparent way."

Alex Mitchell, the person, does have that right. And because of Citizens United, so does Southern Durham Development, which, as a corporation, arguably has deeper pockets than Mitchell and all of SDD's employees combined.

If SDD had a traditional corporate PAC, the company would raise funds from voluntary contributions from its employees, shareholders and their family members. But since SDD is contributing to a Super PAC, the only financial limit is the company's bank account. And backed by SDD, the Partnership can infuse big dollars into the election.

"If I were a candidate, I'd be glad to be supported by the group," Mitchell said.

This article appeared in print with the headline "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Super PAC."

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