Developers spent a lot of money on the Charlotte mayor’s race. Did it pay off?

Updated: Sep. 29, 2017 at 10:17 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill and Gavin Off/The Charlotte Observer) - Like the construction cranes that tower over the skyline, builders, developers and real estate brokers have dominated contributors in Charlotte's mayoral race, many in an effort to oust incumbent Jennifer Roberts.

Individuals with the industry gave nearly $200,000 to the four main mayoral candidates through August. A real estate group that doesn't reveal its donors spent another $91,500 on one candidate's behalf.

Together, that was almost three times as much as the candidates got from donors in the fields of law or health care, according to an Observer analysis of campaign finance reports.

One industry official said the outpouring was in part a reaction to the passage of a 2016 LGBT ordinance that led to the passage of House Bill 2, which in turn prompted economic losses for the city and the state.

The candidates – Democrats Joel Ford, Vi Lyles and Jennifer Roberts along with Republican Kenny Smith – raised a total of more than $1.3 million, according to campaign reports.

Lyles faces Smith in November after defeating Ford and Roberts, the incumbent, in this month's primary.

"I'm proud of the breadth of the diversity (of contributors) across industries in Charlotte," Smith told the Observer.

Lyles highlights the fact that over 80 percent of her donors gave $100 or less, though they accounted for just 14 percent of her fundraising.

"I believe that speaks volumes about who the people of Charlotte want to be their mayor, because I'm focused on the issues that matter to them … I have never – and will never – be bought by private interests."

The Observer identified the source of about nine in every 10 dollars given directly to the candidates. It found:

  • Donors in the banking and financial industry gave $109,000. That was followed by those in health care, who gave $108,500.
  • Attorneys and those in the legal field gave $107,500.
  • Consultants gave $62,000; manufacturers, $31,500.
  • Those who identified as retirees gave $130,000. Donors in other businesses – excluding energy, automotive, the arts and hospitality – contributed $131,000.
  • Roberts, who developed a national profile in the fight against HB2, led in out-of-state donations. Nearly a quarter of her money came from outside North Carolina. Lyles and Smith each raised 8 percent of their money out of state.

Who helped whom

Roberts outraised her rivals, collecting $469,000 in a losing cause. Smith raised a total of $323,000, followed by Lyles' $279,000 and Ford's $261,000.

Attorneys, educators, healthcare professionals and homemakers donated more to Roberts than to her rivals. She raised more than $52,400 from lawyers and another $50,000 from those in health care.

Smith got the most from retirees ($51,100) and bankers ($35,900).

Lyles raised $25,400 from those in healthcare and $8,000 from educators. The former Charlotte city administrator raised $3,600 from donors who worked for government, including former police chief Darrel Stephens.

"As the police chief I had a lot of interaction with her," Stephens said in an email. "I respected and admired her commitment to the city of Charlotte and its people. She is smart and thoughtful…We thought she is one of the most well qualified mayoral candidates we have had in Charlotte."

Roberts raised money from a range of sources including the city's growing international community, with which she has fostered a long relationship.

"She took the initiative to come to us," said Roberts donor Hilda Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia. "(She) showed from the beginning that she wanted to be inclusive and she wanted the Latino community to participate in Charlotte."

HB2 spurred donations

Individual donors in real estate, building and development favored Smith, a commercial real estate broker. They gave him $92,000 compared to $52,000 to Ford and $29,000 to Lyles. Roberts got $27,000.

"He's well-known in that community," said Smith donor David Morris, director of investment sales for Trinity Partners. "It's what he does for a living.…People know and respect Kenny as an everyday guy."

The North Carolina Property Rights Fund, associated with the N.C. Association of Realtors, weighed in with $91,500 for mailers, polling and other help to Ford, according to Fund chairman Tommy Lawing Jr. As a so-called 527 group organized under IRS rules, the group does not disclose its donors.

"In this case we were looking at a business friendly candidate in Joel Ford, trying to move the needle in his direction," said Lawing, president of a Charlotte real estate company.

Joe Padilla, executive director of REBIC, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, personally gave to Smith and Ford. He said while his industry has always contributed, interest was spiked by last year's anti-discrimination ordinance. State lawmakers responded with HB2, causing some companies to drop plans to expand or relocate in the state.

"I think that ratcheted up interest and concern among people in our industry," Padilla said, "that we need leadership that's going to be forward-thinking in ensuring that Charlotte is going to remain on the cutting edge of attracting development and growth."

Roberts' support for the LGBT ordinance and opposition to HB2 also brought her support from inside and outside North Carolina. The PAC for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT rights group, gave her $5,200.

Another business group could be about to invest in the race.

Like the Property Rights Fund, Forward Charlotte is a 501(c)(4) "social welfare organization" that doesn't have to disclose donors. It's run by Republican strategist Mark Knoop, who says Lyles "is like an extension of Jennifer Roberts."

"The bulk of our spending," Knoop said, "hasn't really begun.