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Two of Chapel Hill’s three mayoral candidates were flush with cash as the race entered its final month in October, state finance reports showed.
At least five of the seven Chapel Hill Town Council candidates also reported having several thousand dollars still available in 35-day reports filed with the state Board of Elections in late September.
Chapel Hill voters will elect a mayor and four council members in the Nov. 2 general election. Early voting runs through Oct. 30.
In the mayor’s race, council member Hongbin Gu raised $27,486 so far this year, more than twice the $12,119 that incumbent Mayor Pam Hemminger reported raising. Hemminger’s report also showed her heading into the race with roughly $6,500 from previous races.
Hemminger had spent $6,345, roughly three times what Gu reported spending on campaign expenses.
A third mayoral candidate, UNC law student Zachary Boyce, had raised just $10, according to his report.
Development, community ties
Hemminger is facing her first real challenge since being elected mayor in 2015, when she raised nearly $25,000 to run against then-incumbent Mark Kleinschmidt. Kleinschmidt, who raised $30,480 in that race, and former Council member Donna Bell faced allegations at the time about whether developers were buying influence with big donations.
Candidates in subsequent elections have faced similar questions, including Council member Tai Huynh, who raised $9,428 from local and out-of-state developers in his successful 2019 election, the most of any candidate in that race.
This year’s reports showed that only seven donors to Gu’s campaign had real estate ties and none were linked to developers.
Hemminger had two donations from real estate professionals and three donations from people who work in commercial development, including a UNC real estate executive and a local hotel owner involved in the Tarheel Lodging mixed-use project on Fordham Boulevard.
Roughly one in five of Hemminger’s donors were retired, and she also had support from council members Jessica Anderson and Michael Parker, council candidate Adam Searing, and Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene and former Commissioner Mia Burroughs. Five council members also announced last week that they were endorsing Hemminger for another term.
Gu’s fundraising report reflected her connection to the Asian community in Chapel Hill and Cary. Roughly 13% of Chapel Hill residents and 18% of Cary residents are of Asian descent, according to the U.S. Census.
If elected, Gu, a native of China who came to the United States in 1995, would become the town’s first Asian-American mayor. She became the town’s first Asian-American council member when she was elected in 2017.
Over half of Gu’s support — more than $21,500 — came from 57 donors who gave the maximum contribution of $378 allowed under Chapel Hill’s municipal election rules. Another 41 donors gave between $100 and $300 to her campaign.
Gu has spent $1,951 on her campaign so far, reports show.
This year’s mayoral and council races also are notable for who did — and didn’t — get an endorsement from the grassroots Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town political action group, which formed in 2014 to change the town’s pace of development and style of construction.
Hemminger and four of the council’s six current members, including Gu, were elected with CHALT support. However, this year, CHALT is supporting Gu’s race for mayor instead of Hemminger, noting Hemminger “has not shown the bold leadership we had hoped to see in addressing some of the most fundamental challenges facing the town.”
Gu, the group said, “has been a pleasant surprise.”
“We knew that she was analytical and would be data-driven, but we had no idea how motivated and tenacious she would become,” it said.
In the council race, CHALT backed only two candidates — restaurateur Vimala Rajendran and attorney Searing, who is also co-founder of Friends of the Greene Tract.
Incumbent council member Karen Stegman, who received CHALT’s endorsement in 2017, “has been the council member least likely to ask for meaningful concessions from developers,” the group said this year in rejecting another endorsement.
Council fundraising, endorsements
Stegman led the council candidates in fundraising this year, with $17,204, reports show. She was followed by newcomers Camille Berry with $14,251; Rajendran with $12,056; and Searing with $11,565.
Paris Miller-Foushee, who raised $9,365, was the only other council candidate reporting substantial donations. Candidate Robert Beasley reported raising $338 and loaning his campaign $1,500, while candidate Jeffrey Hoagland reported a $25 donation.
An eighth candidate, Andrew Creech, dropped out of the race a few weeks ago.
While hardly any donors to council campaigns had real estate or development connections, there were several retired council, school board and county commission members putting money into the race.
Stegman and Berry had the most support from current or former elected officials, followed by Miller-Foushee and Rajendran, with two each. Rajendran also received a $100 donation from Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Neiman.
Berry and Miller-Foushee also received $100 donations from John Rees, a board member with the NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro political action group, which endorsed Berry, Miller-Foushee and Stegman in the council race. NEXT endorsed Hemminger for mayor.
CHALT’s political action committee — Chapel Hill Leadership PAC — noted in its midyear campaign finance report filed in July with the state that the group had $932.58 available, including $295 in donations.
State records also showed the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC was fined $500 in June 2020 and again in August 2021 for late campaign finance reports. Henkel filed an appeal Sept. 22 of the latest fine, but said he did not know about the 2020 fine when contacted by The News & Observer. State records show the report in question — a 2019 year-end report — was filed in February 2020.
The council candidates spent the biggest chunk of money — $10,800 — on campaign yard signs, records show. While yard signs often turn up missing in local elections, several candidates reported recently that they had to replace hundreds of stolen or vandalized signs.
The finance reports showed:
▪ Beasley: Spent $1,630, including $1,354 on printed media.
▪ Berry: Spent $5,543, including $2,638 for yard signs and $1,500 to Nicholas Johnson for social media and communications work.
▪ Hoagland: Did not file a campaign finance report.
▪ Miller-Foushee: Spent $4,737, including $2,145 for yard signs, $465 to Nicholas Datto for campaign field work, and $697 for campaign materials.
▪ Rajendran: Spent $8,675, including $2,331 for yard signs, $1,000 to Caroline Martin for field coordination work, and $3,515 to Dominique Shaw for social media work.
▪ Searing: Spent $6,839, including $2,608 for door hangers and $2,456 for yard signs.
▪ Stegman: Spent $5,625, including $1,810 for website design and development, and $1,237 for yard signs.
The Orange Report
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