December 2, 2022

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Analysis: The real estate industry is backing local candidates

The real estate industry is helping fund Charlotte City Council elections, and the biggest donors are among the most prominent developers in town.

State of play: Axios analyzed campaign contributions from the real estate industry — including developers, engineers, attorneys and realtors — based on the two most recent campaign finance reports due for all candidates in April and May. More than a dozen candidates did not submit those documents by the due date, Axios reported recently.

  • The top five fundraisers in both parties were: Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, James “Smuggie” Mitchell, Braxton Winston — all Democrats who have previously served on council — and Kyle Luebke, who is a Republican first-time candidate.
  • About $60,000, or 32.7%, of the roughly $185,000 collected by the top fundraisers in the council race came from the real estate industry, per our analysis.

Why it matters: City Council plays a major role in Charlotte’s growth: some of its biggest, most contentious decisions revolve around what and where projects are built, and how the city should develop.

  • Even though it’s not the biggest industry in the city, real estate is among the most directly impacted by local government: every month City Council decides whether to approve or deny major developments.

Background: Six Democratic candidates are competing for four seats in the at-large race in the May 17 primary election: incumbents Ajmera and Winston, District 1 incumbent Egleston, former council members Mitchell and LaWana Mayfield and former Mayor Patrick Cannon, who served time in prison for corruption.

  • On the GOP side, voters will choose from Luebke, David Merrill, Charlie Mulligan, Carrie Olinski and David Michael Rice.

Data: N.C. and Mecklenburg County campaign finance reports, Axios research; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

By the numbers: Egleston raised the largest percentage from the real estate industry, per the latest two campaign finance reports, compared to the other candidates, at 62.2%, which translates to just under $30,800.

  • Plus, a group called the North Carolina Property Rights Fund spent $61,888 on mailers, digital ads and texting service to support Egleston, according to its latest disclosure. The group lists the same address on its report as NC REALTORS®, a statewide real estate industry organization. It’s also supporting several City Council district candidates: Billy Maddalon (D1), Darlene Heater (D4) and Marjorie Molina (D5). 
  • The independent group doesn’t coordinate with the campaign, therefore the spending is not part of candidates’ campaign finance reports.

Here’s what the other four candidates received from the industry:

  • Ajmera: Around $14,000, about 26%
  • Winston: $6,500, 28%
  • Mitchell: $5,371, 18%
  • Luebke: $3,700 or 13.3%

The big picture: Across the nation, the real estate industry is typically the largest sector donating to city races, says Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte.

  • “There [are] few industries that have more at stake in local elections.”

What they’re saying: Rob Nanfelt, executive director of Charlotte’s Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, which is affiliated with the statewide real estate group, tells Axios the industry wants to be part of the political process.

  • “We care about the future of the city and what comes of it, and as a result we want to make sure that the kind of people that are making the decisions that impact that future growth are folks that are problem solvers,” he says.

Of note: The totals from these two recent reports are separate, and in some cases much lower than the overall money raised by the candidates this election cycle. Winston and Egleston, for example, have raised well over $100,000 each.

Who is giving: The largest contribution across candidates’ reports from the industry was $4,000 to Egleston from the NC REALTOR® Political Action Committee.

  • Of note: The PAC disclosed that it had given two checks of $4,000 and $250 to Mitchell’s campaign, but neither are listed on Mitchell’s campaign finance report. Mitchell confirmed in a text message that he received the $4,000 contribution, and said his treasurer plans to submit several amendments to the report on Monday. He said he would look into the other $250.
  • The PAC’s disclosures also show a $250 check made out to Egleston’s campaign in late April, for a total of $4,250, but that is also not listed on Egleston’s report. The most recent candidate report due covered donations received through May 2.
  • Egleston said in a text message that he does not recall or see any record of the $250 contribution.

Plus:

  • Chad Hagler, with Woodfield Development, donated $1,000 each to three candidates’ campaigns: Ajmera, Winston and Egleston. Woodfield developed the Cadence Music Factory, Circa Uptown and Elizabeth Square apartment buildings. The firm also worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on a controversial rezoning in Ballantyne.
  • Jon Morris, with Beacon Partners, gave $2,500 to Egleston’s campaign. Beacon is the developer behind several South End towers, including The Square, a 10-story tower at the corner of West Boulevard and South Tryon Street, and The RailYard.
  • Michael Fallon, with Boston-based The Fallon Company, contributed $2,500 to Ajmera’s campaign. The Fallon Company is working with Inlivian, formerly the Charlotte Housing Authority, to redevelop the old Strawn Cottages site.

Candidate responses: Axios reached out to the top five fundraisers in the at-large race, per our analysis, for comment.

Egleston tells me there’s never been any implication that donors will have a say in how he votes. He pointed to his support of the 2040 plan, which was opposed by some in the real estate industry, as an example.

“I stand on my record of votes I’ve taken that demonstrate what I’m actually about, and demonstrate I’m not beholden to any industry or any person other than my own beliefs and convictions,” he says.

  • Mitchell says his contributions reflect his ability to build consensus between developers and the community. “All of my contributions that I receive, I think I make it clear to everyone, you give me a contribution because you believe in my leadership,” he says. “You do not give me a contribution so you have access to me. Everyone has access to me.”
  • Ajmera says she’s grateful for the diverse support and donors to her campaign. She says the vast majority of her contributions came from outside of real estate.
  • Luebke tells me most of the real estate industry contributors are friends from before he declared his candidacy. “Just because I’m getting that much doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the only people I’m listening to. I’m listening to everybody,” he says.

Hagler says he’s donated to candidates for more than 15 years, and wants to see people on council who understand the housing shortage the city is facing.

  • “I try to support candidates that I think are fair, and understand the process, and understand that we need more housing in Charlotte,” he tells me.

The other side: The Housing Justice Coalition CLT, which advocates for residents on issues like displacement, is asking for a cap on donations from developers.

  • They are also seeking a process where members can recuse themselves from votes that relate to a donor, according to Ismaail Qaiyim, the group’s co-chairperson of the policy and political education committee.
  • We really want to see more conversation around it, more transparency around it and a process to really limit the influence that it may have on the decision making of City Council,” he says.

The bottom line: The biggest donors to local candidates in recent months have built, or are working on some of the most recognizable buildings in the city.

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