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Campaigning at a cost in Chapel Hill, Carrboro


Clarification: The graphic represents candidates’ total expenditures, as recorded on their final reports for the Orange County Board of Elections. Expenditures, per North Carolina law, include gifts, payments, donations, in-kind contributions and loan repayments. Candidates whose total expenditures include loan repayments are: Michael Parker, Paul Neebe, Nancy Oates and David Schwartz.The graphic has been updated to clarify this distinction. 

In the 2015 Chapel Hill mayoral race, the two front runners, Pam Hemminger and Mark Kleinschmidt,  spent a combined total of $53,603.58 on their campaigns. 

The Chapel Hill Town Council race was competitive in 2015 with nine candidates vying for four seats, and candidate spending varied significantly. Incumbent Lee Storrow, who ran the most expensive campaign, spent $23,178.36 on his town council bid. Incumbent Jim Ward spent only $5 — the filing fee to run for town council.

Both Storrow and Ward lost the race.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro both have limits on the amount of money individual donors can give. Carrboro individual contributions are capped at $250 per donor, excluding candidates themselves and immediate family members. In Chapel Hill, the individual limit is $353 and does not apply to candidates or their spouses.

Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney said it is not only important to keep election costs low, but also that individual campaign contributions are restricted — which are priorities met through the towns' limits on individual donations. 

“I would rather every candidate raise $2500 from 50 people than $2500 from three people or five people or 10 — then 10 people are running your campaign instead of 50,” Chaney said. “I don’t make my decisions based off of who gave me money for my campaign, but the more money that’s involved in a campaign, you bet people are paying attention.”  

'There's other money in play'

The landscape for Chapel Hill politics shifted with the 2015 formation of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town. CHALT endorses candidates who share its goals of creating a more livable town with less traffic, affordable housing and lower taxes. 

Tom Henkel, a co-founder of CHALT, said its political action committee did not directly contribute money to any candidate’s campaign in 2015. CHALT’s 2017 PAC, Chapel Hill Leadership-PAC, is not planning on directly contributing to candidates this year either.

“What the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC is going to be spending our money on is canvassing and promotional materials on behalf of the candidates we are supporting,” Henkel said.

CHL-PAC must follow state election laws which dictate that all revenues and expenses must be reported — and that individual contributions cannot exceed $5,100. 

Henkel said he believes CHALT’s canvassing efforts in 2015 were what helped elect three out of the four CHALT-endorsed candidates.

Former Mayor Kleinschmidt said 2015 was not the first year Chapel Hill had seen a PAC and other local communities, like Durham, also feel PACs involvement in politics.

“(A PAC in local elections) does not mean that the campaigns become more expensive, but that there’s other money in play,” Kleinschmidt said.

Town Council member Maria Palmer, who is up for re-election this year, said she hopes to raise $5,000 for her campaign. 

“People are telling me I need to raise more, that I need to do more mailings and this and that — but I work full time and there’s only so much fundraising I can do,” Palmer said.

So far she has raised about $3,000.

Hemminger, now the mayor of Chapel Hill, acknowledged the difficulties of holding a full time job and running for office at the same time. The burden of expensive campaigns and fundraising can add significant barriers for a lot of people, she said. 

Carrboro campaigning and self-imposed limits

Without opposition in the Carrboro mayoral and aldermen races, none of the candidates raised any money in 2015.

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“What we all decided is that we weren’t going to actively campaign,” said Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney, who ran in 2015. “It was an unopposed election and instead we spent our time and resources registering people to vote and encouraging people to get out and vote.”

But when Chaney ran in a special election in 2014, she raised over $3,100 in donations, as well as $400 through in-kind donations, which include food, supplies and other non-monetary donations. Chaney received 54 unique and individual contributions. She set a personal donation cap at $100 per person.

In total, she spent around $2,900 on her campaign, including the $400 through in-kind donations. 

“I really tried to be modest in what I was spending, so I feel relatively typical of a modest campaign,” Chaney said. “I wasn’t living on a shoe string that’s for sure, but I did not overspend, I don’t think, given that I was a first-time candidate.”

Mike Benson, Lavelle’s opponent in this year's Carrboro mayoral race, said he's spending $1,000 and that he has raised about $700 so far.

Benson said keeping track of election money is extremely important so people understand where it's coming from.

The campaign funding caps that are put on Chapel Hill Town Council and Carrboro Aldermen races are crucial to the integrity of their campaigns, Hemminger said.

"The Carrboro Aldermen and Chapel Hill Town Council both put those limits on there so that nobody could come in and technically buy a campaign — that's why those limits were put in there — that people had to give a lot of different support, not just a few people paying big bucks," she said.

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said she has also set a self-imposed $100 individual contribution limit, something she has done since she started running for office.

Lavelle said she has raised somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 for her current re-election campaign. 

One of the biggest expenditures for Lavelle's campaigns over the years has been yard signs, although she said she reuses yard signs by placing stickers over them.

“I’ve been very economical with how I’ve used these signs,” she said. “If you look at them closely, you can see that I’ve used them for ten years.”


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