Politics & Government

NC Supreme Court race attracts big campaign donations. Here’s who’s giving.

Barbara Jackson, left, and Anita Earls are candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court.
Barbara Jackson, left, and Anita Earls are candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court. File photos

In 2016, the most expensive judicial race in the country was in North Carolina, for a seat on the state Supreme Court. This year there’s another seat on the court up for grabs, and the candidates have already raised more money than those running two years ago.

Lawyers, doctors, real estate developers, business owners and political activists are among the biggest donors identified in the campaign finance reports that the two main candidates filed at the end of July — which showed how much they’ve raised and spent through the end of June.

But while candidate fundraising in 2018 has already surpassed 2016, it’s still unclear whether this year’s race as a whole will be as expensive as the one two years ago. In that race, it was $5 million in spending from outside groups that helped make that race the nation’s most expensive, according to a 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Those millions went to pay for TV ads, mailers and more.

Outside groups will likely end up spending big this year once again. But for now, the only readily available information comes from the campaign finance reports filed regularly by the candidates themselves.

Most of the money reported so far went to Democratic challenger Anita Earls, who is seeking a victory that would swing the court’s current 4-3 liberal majority farther to the left.

Earls raised nearly $500,000 through June, according to campaign finance reports. With several months still to go until the election, she could personally surpass the $675,000 that both candidates combined to raise in 2016.

“I am honored to have strong support from people across North Carolina who want an independent voice on the state Supreme Court,” Earls said in a written statement. “As a civil rights attorney, I have spent my career working with families to ensure all voices are heard in our system and as a justice I will ensure a court where the rules are the same for everyone, not favoring political insiders or those with great wealth and power.”

Earls is running against an incumbent Supreme Court associate justice, Barbara Jackson. A Republican seeking re-election to the bench, Jackson raised more than $225,000 through June.

While that’s less than half of what Earls has raised, Jackson is nevertheless on pace to raise more than what the 2016 winner, Mike Morgan, spent on his campaign.

“I am humbled by the support I have and continue to receive from voters across North Carolina,” Jackson said in a written statement. “My plan is continue to work hard to take my positive message to these voters.”

Jackson also noted the ethical constraints judges face in raising money for their political campaigns.

“Fundraising in judicial campaigns can be challenging because of the limitations imposed both on our speech and what we can do in accordance with the Code of Judicial Conduct,” she said. “I take that obligation seriously and understand that it is critical that every party who comes before our Supreme Court is confident that they will receive a fair and impartial hearing, resulting in a decision that adheres to the rule of law.”

Both Earls and Jackson still have more than half of their fundraising total saved up, having spent relatively little — $100,000 for Jackson and $160,000 for Earls — this early in their campaigns.

There’s also a third candidate, Chris Anglin, who only entered the race last month and did not raise any money in the first several days of his campaign, according to a campaign finance report filed in early July. He hasn’t filed any more recent finance reports, as Earls and Jackson have.

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Anglin is a dark-horse candidate, and most observers see the race as a contest between Earls and Jackson, who have been endorsed by their respective political parties.

Who’s donating?

Earls said she’s proud that 70 percent of her campaign cash came from small-time donors, who gave $100 or less — a coalition of supporters who, she said, “believe our democracy should not be for sale.”

But she’s also far outpacing Jackson in the number of large donors to her campaign.

Jackson had 11 donors who gave $2,000 or more, including five who gave $5,000 or more. Meanwhile, Earls had 47 donors who gave $2,000 or more, including 27 who gave $5,000 or more.

The cap on individual donations is $5,200, and both women have received that much or nearly that much from several local political activists.

Both campaigns have received donations from business owners, lawyers and others with a vested interest in the makeup of the court.

Earls received a number of large donations from lawyers who represent people in cases involving personal injury, medical malpractice or sexual harassment law. Jackson received a number of large donations from business interests and real estate developers.

What Jackson received

$5,200 each from Art and Katherine Pope. Art Pope leads the company that operates Roses department store, and he is a major GOP donor who is influential in North Carolina politics.

Nearly $5,200 each from Maria and Bob Luddy. Bob Luddy is a businessman and the founder of Thales Academy, a chain of private schools located in various Wake County suburbs. He’s one of the state’s most prolific GOP donors.

$3,500 from Michael Smith, a Raleigh real estate developer who is the president of Kane Realty.

$3,000 from Scott Sullivan, a real estate developer from Wilmington.

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$1,500 from Kieran Shanahan, who led the Department of Public Safety under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and is now the chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees.

$1,500 from Stefan Gleason, a Charlotte marketing executive who also runs a gold and silver business and was formerly the vice president of an anti-union group.

$1,000 from Lending Tree CEO Douglas Lebda.

$1,000 from Bill Prestage of Sampson County, who according to the website National Hog Farmer is “the largest independent pork and turkey producer in the country.”

$1,000 from a group representing doctors at hospitals in and near Charlotte, called the Providence Anesthesiology Association PAC.

What Earls received

$5,200 from Bob Page, the president of Greensboro-based Replacements, Ltd.

$5,200 from Michael Conlon, whose company Affordable Communities Group owns mobile home parks all over the Southeast.

$5,200 each from Sesha and Dean Debnam. Dean Debnam has several businesses in the Triangle, including the liberal-leaning firm Public Policy Polling.

$5,200 each from Sarah and Marjorie Baesmith. Marjorie Baesmith is co-founder of the Durham civil rights group Laughing Gull Foundation.

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$5,200 each from Jim Overton and Mary Mountcastle. The couple are involved in numerous liberal causes in North Carolina, and Mountcastle is the great-granddaughter of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds.

$5,200 from Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal activist from California.

Nearly $5,200 each from Barbara and Jim Goodmon. Jim Goodmon is the CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL and the Durham Bulls.

$5,000 each from John and Ann Campbell. John Campbell founded the Campbell Alliance, a consulting firm that works for pharmaceutical companies.

$5,000 from Fred Stanback Jr., a Salisbury philanthropist who has been involved in pro-environment and anti-immigration causes.

$2,000 from Ron McFarlane, the husband of Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

$1,000 from Ronald J. Bernstein, the CEO of Morrisville-based tobacco company Liggett Vector Brands.

$1,000 from Frank Daniels Jr., a former publisher of the News & Observer.

Dark money

But while public records laws make it easy to track how much candidates are personally raising for their campaigns — and who their donors are — it’s harder to track similar information for outside groups like PACs and super PACs. And those outside groups are increasingly where the money in politics is heading.

The growth of those outside groups, according to retired Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, is largely responsible for what he calls “ever-increasing partisanship” in the state court system.

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Unlike the federal court system, where judges are appointed, all judges in North Carolina have to run for office in elections every few years.

Orr said in a recent interview that part of the reason he retired in 2004, just halfway through his term, was increased polarization. And he said the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case — which allowed individuals and businesses to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, often with a great deal of secrecy — has only made matters worse.

“The big issue is dark money,” Orr said. “... It’s just fundamentally wrong that people who aren’t accountable are spending substantial sums of money to influence who the members of our state’s highest court are.”

An analysis by Durham-based Facing South found that the $5 million in outside money in the 2016 Supreme Court race was fairly evenly split down partisan lines. It traced $2.4 million to liberal groups supporting Morgan and $2.6 million to conservative groups supporting the incumbent he defeated, Bob Edmunds.

Morgan was helped out in that race by a video ad in which then-President Barack Obama endorsed him, and by a controversial attack ad — paid for by one of those outside groups — that criticized Edmunds over a past gerrymandering case.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran