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Elite Circle of Donors in North Carolina Supplies Cash for Would-Be Governors

80% of Campaign Money Comes From $1,000+ Donors

A January 2000 study of political contributions to the candidates running for governor in North Carolina at that time showed that a small number of high-dollar donors gave the lion's share of campaign money.

Political commentators of all stripes recognize that money is increasingly deciding who can run as a viable candidate, but little analysis has been done of who actually supplies the cash. It's a smaller group than you might think.

Of the $6.4 million raised from individuals by the five major-party candidates for governor, $3.3 million, or more than half, comes from a mere 666 donors who each gave at least $2,500.

Many in this elite group are related to one another, and at least 60 have given to two or even three of the five candidates, according to reports filed with the state Board of Election covering activities through June 30, 1999. In fact, more than 40 gave to candidates in opposing parties.

These $2,500-and-up donors include UNC-CH Trustee William R. Jordan of Fayetteville, who gave $2,000 to Democrat Dennis Wicker but, with his family, gave $20,000 to his primary-election opponent, Mike Easley; Chuck Hayes of Guilford Mills, who with his family, gave $24,000 to Easley and raised over $100,000 more for Easley from his Guilford Mills contacts; mega-farmer Carson B. Barnes of Nash County, who gave $4,000 to Easley but also $4,000 to Republican Leo Daughtry; the Bratton family of Wake Stone Corp. in Raleigh, who gave $11,000 to Republican Chuck Neely and $5,000 to Democrat Dennis Wicker.

Also: Nick Boddie, Rocky Mount fast-food franchise owner, who gave $870 to Republican Richard Vinroot and $2,000 to Democrat Mike Easley; the Vannoy family of Ashe County, developers and road builders, who gave $12,000 to Wicker; developer John Crosland of Charlotte, who gave $4,000 to Wicker, $1,000 to Daughtry, and $500 to Vinroot; the Zimmer family of Wilmington, attorneys and developers, who gave $12,000 to Wicker and $4,000 to Easley; developer Charles M. Shelton Sr. of Charlotte, who gave $4,000 to Daughtry and $1,000 to Vinroot; George Roundtree III, Wilmington attorney, who gave $500 to Daughtry and $2,000 to Vinroot; and Jeffrey Minges, Pepsi bottler in Kinston, who gave $500 to Wicker and $2,000 to Easley.

"These are the modern-day king makers," said Pete MacDowell, executive director of Democracy South. "Together, they wield enormous power in a state of 7.5 million people, yet they could all fit on the top decks of the Queen Elizabeth II. It raises the question: Are we a democracy or a plutocracy?"

The top donors are augmented by the next tier, about 1,440 people who each gave a total of $1,000 to $2,500 to the gubernatorial candidates.

Combining the top two tiers, the study concludes that 80 percent of the $6.4 million - or $4 out of every $5 raised from individuals - comes from 2,100 donors who each gave $1,000 or more. Another 10 percent of all donations from individuals comes from donors giving $500 to $1,000.

By contrast, donors who gave $100 or less barely register as significant, supplying less than 4 percent of the $6.4 million, or less than $250,000. Candidate Wicker and Easley together earned that much in interest on their war chests.

"No wonder ordinary voters feel their voices don't count in today's money-driven politics," said MacDowell. "Party activists also feel demeaned by the constant requests for large donations, as though that is the only measure of their loyalty. Even small donors feel left out because they are no longer valued unless they can give or raise large amounts of money."

"The candidates focus almost exclusively on high-dollar donors for their survival in what is now called the 'wealth primary,'" he noted. "Without access to big money, even highly qualified candidates can't compete in the wealth primary. It's a system that breeds cynicism among voters, yet pays off handsomely for the big donors and their special interests."

MacDowell pointed out that the system has gotten so bad that it has been challenged by mainstream leaders in both the North Carolina courts and the state legislature. A legal team headed by former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice James Exum has argued that the current "wealth primary" imposes a financial qualification on candidates, in violation of the North Carolina constitution.

Other conclusions from the study:

· The top fund-raising candidate, Dennis Wicker, a Democrat who was the state's Lt. Governor, had 361 donors who have given his campaign at least $2,500 each, more big donors than the four other gubernatorial candidates combined.

· Wicker's primary opponent, Mike Easley, who eventually won the Governor's post, got 94 percent of his funds from donors giving $500 or more, the highest portion of any gubernatorial candidate.

· Republican Leo Daughtry's $735,000 loan to his campaign propelled him into a competitive position, showing the advantage of a candidate with personal wealth.

· Daughtry's primary opponents, Chuck Neely and Richard Vinroot, trailed in the fund-raising race and rely somewhat more heavily on small donors, but they still received more than three-fourths of their funds from donors giving $500 or more, according to Democracy South's analysis.


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