As Election Day approaches, candidates for local office in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are entering the home stretch of campaigning. For the Next Action Fund and Chapel Hill Leadership Political Action Committee, that means that in just a few days, they will know if the candidates they endorsed have secured seats.
Carrboro Board of Alderman member Damon Seils, who is seeking re-election, said he is eager for residents to get involved, learn more about local issues and get to know the candidates.
“I think the other candidates would agree with me that we’ve all been really happy about how positive the campaigns have been in Carrboro,” he said.
Julie McClintock is a member of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Liveable Town, or CHALT, a grassroots organization founded in 2014. The organization was formed in response to residents’ concerns about government unresponsiveness to community input, especially in regards to the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan.
McClintock said when CHALT members got involved in the 2015 local elections, they created the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC because they knew they wanted to work with the candidates they endorsed. They also realized that, in accordance with North Carolina law, they would have to create a PAC to do that.
“We don’t tell people what to do,” she said. “What we want is to elect people that can think through the issues and listen to people, that can work with their colleagues and make good decisions. That’s what we’re after.”
In the 2015 and 2017 elections cycles, CHALT made nine endorsements, eight of which were successful.
This year, CHALT has endorsed incumbent Mayor Pam Hemminger and incumbent members Jessica Anderson, Nancy Oates, Amy Ryan and Renuka Soll. CHALT's website provides explanations for the organization’s criteria and selection process.
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said in an email that most organizations endorse candidates who are guided by a particular issue or set of values.
“Decision making by elected officials is often not so clear, and can be difficult when a candidate is faced with choosing between competing values,” she said.
Soll said she was happy when she found out that she had been endorsed by CHALT, particularly because of the rigor of the selection process.
“I felt like they had vetted us very thoroughly,” she said.
Hemminger said she is collaborating with Lavelle to find a way to merge the endorsement processes of multiple organizations.
“There were 25 forums, interviews and questionnaires this time, so there was a lot there. But none of it was centralized, so it was hard for people to know where to go to get information,” she said.
Tom Henkel, treasurer of the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC, said CHALT’s PAC is not involved in endorsements. He said the PAC raises funds from individual donors and uses them for promotional materials such as yard signs, flyers and media advertising for CHALT-endorsed candidates. He said the PAC does not contribute directly to candidates because they have been able to raise their own funds independently.
Soll said CHALT's canvassing exposes households to more information and different kinds of information.
“I think those kinds of things can be very helpful in terms of voters doing their homework later on and finding out more about my campaign,” she said.
PACs are required to report donations and expenditures to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. This election cycle, the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC spent $4,208.76.
Henkel said there’s nothing evil about a PAC.
“The Super PACs, where they don’t have to reveal who their donors are, they offer some problems,” he said. “They’re not transparent.”
NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro is another local organization that also cites public transportation and public housing as two of its priorities. NEXT has a 501(c)(4) — a status reserved for nonprofits operated solely to further social welfare — called NEXT Action Fund.
Molly De Marco, NEXT’s board chairperson, said in an email that neither NEXT nor the NEXT Action Fund raises or donates money toward local elections. The NEXT Action Fund endorsed incumbents Damon Seils and Sammy Slade for the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, Lavelle for Carrboro mayor, and incumbent Michael Parker, Sue Hunter and Tai Huynh for town council.
“The NEXT Action Fund was formed because of an interest by the membership in working on advocating for local policy change and along with that comes having people in local elected office who share our values,” she said. “Our purpose for doing endorsements, for the first time this year, was to educate our membership about those running for office who share NEXT's values.”
Hunter was a board member of NEXT until April 2019. She was Next Action Fund’s treasurer.
Oates said she has been astounded and saddened by the amount of money NEXT Action Fund-endorsed candidates have been able to raise. She said that if she had known that she would need around $16,000 when she first ran in 2015, she wouldn’t have run in the first place.
“There wasn’t this need for this kind of big money, and I don’t want to see it now because I think that we lose something if the only people who are running are wealthy or well-connected with wealth and I’d like to see people who are of modest means still be able to run for office and have a shot at a seat,” she said.