Democratic Candidate for Senate Was a Key Player in Controversial Big Money-Fueled Development Project

North Carolina Senate candidate Cal Cunningham helped push a controversial project that some county officials and environmental advocates fiercely opposed.

CHARLOTTE, NC, UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 6: Former NC State Senator and former candidate for US Senate Cal Cunningham is seen before Jon Bon Jovi's campaign for Hillary Clinton during a public "Get Out The Early Vote" event at the Filmore in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States on November 6, 2016. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Senate candidate Cal Cunningham ahead of a “Get Out The Early Vote” event for Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 6, 2016. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

North Carolina Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, who has pledged not to take corporate PAC donations, as recently as last year received money from a real estate developer affiliated with Durham County’s first Super PAC, according to his financial disclosures. As a lawyer for Southern Durham Development starting in 2011, Cunningham helped push a controversial project that several county officials and environmental advocates fiercely opposed, while the PAC poured money into a local race in support.

Though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to endorse in the race, Cunningham appears to be the party’s preferred candidate. He’s been endorsed by several prominent politicians in the state, as well as End Citizens United, a political action committee that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Cunningham represented the developer in a 2011 lawsuit brought by property owners living near the site of its proposed 751 South project, a luxury multi-use development with an estimated cost of $500 million. Opponents of the project criticized the company’s attempts to buy influence on the commission, skirting and reconfiguring zoning and environmental regulations in their favor. According to financial disclosures Cunningham filed as recently as this year, he was paid by Southern from 2012 to 2014, and by 751 South from 2016 to 2018.

Cunningham was a lawyer for Southern in 2012, the same year the company funded the entirety of a PAC whose sole purpose was to back candidates for county commission who were in favor of 751 South. The multiyear fight over the project ended up drawing in both the state legislature and the governor. Cunningham was directly involved in advocating for the project in Raleigh, approaching a Republican state lawmaker with whom he attended college about introducing legislation that would eventually force Durham to provide water and sewer services to the project, something county officials had opposed.

In a statement to The Intercept, Cunningham’s campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri wrote, “Cal has no connection to this PAC, and is refusing corporate PAC money in this election. He is proud to have the backing of End Citizens United both for his commitment to get big money out of our political system in the Senate, and for his record in the State Senate passing legislation which established nonpartisan elections, public financing, and voter guides for judicial elections.”

Cunningham is running to replace Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who has the lowest approval rating of any senator. He and state Sen. Erica Smith are considered the Democratic frontrunners for the nomination. In a June poll that didn’t include Cunningham, Smith led Tillis by 7 points. Smith, a former Boeing engineer, math and science teacher, and ordained minister, is running on reforming the criminal justice system, addressing gun violence, and supporting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. Smith has also sworn off corporate PAC money, and she had raised $85,460 by the end of June, including $28,000 in max-out contributions. But the majority of her contributions have come in smaller donations. She says her grassroots campaign is funded in large part by working people. “Where do I get my money from? Teachers, ministers, grassroots, moms,” Smith said. “I’m the only candidate who didn’t loan my campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, raised close to $1 million in the third quarter, bringing his total fundraising to around $1.5 million. Earlier this year, he contributed $200,000 of his own money to his campaign. His campaign has drawn significant contributions from donors linked to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. His launch video did not include a policy platform.

The 751 South project, which includes luxury single-family homes priced between $500,000 and over $1 million, was opposed by environmental advocacy groups in North Carolina, who said it would pollute two connected bodies of water nearby that supply drinking water for 300,000 people in the state.

In 2012, six Durham city commissioners unanimously voted to deny the developers’ request to provide water and sewer service to the project. Later that year, Durham Partnership for Progress, the county’s first Super PAC, was formed, and it went on to back county commission primary candidates who were in favor of 751 South. Filings show that the PAC received mail and compliance services from a firm employing Morgan Jackson, who was Cunningham’s chief political consultant during his unsuccessful 2010 run for the Democratic nomination for Senate. Tyler Morris, a Southern partner, was the PAC’s assistant treasurer. The address listed on the PAC’s filings is the address of Southern Durham’s offices.

The PAC received contributions totaling $54,000 from Southern Durham Development in 2012, and it had spent $54,000 on the commission race, making it the largest spender in that election. Herald Sun reporter Ray Gronberg called the Super PAC “the largest force in the campaign, financially.” Durham Partnership for Progress closed in January 2013, only nine months after launching.

The PAC’s slate included four candidates who supported the project, among them three incumbent commissioners who voted for rezoning. The group mailed over 60,000 flyers with the candidates’ images on them to Durham voters who had previously voted in a Democratic primary. The PAC faced several accusations of illegally coordinating with candidates during the race. The state Board of Elections received at least eight related complaints, and although the director of elections said that “there did appear to be some degree of coordination,” the board eventually dismissed them.

Commissioners endorsed by the PAC later voted to allow Southern to delay payments of close to $1 million in fees to state environmental officials to offset any impact the development had on Lake Jordan, a nearby body of water whose watershed overlaps with the project area. Environmental groups including Environment North Carolina raised concerns about the development’s impact on Lake Jordan throughout the approval process.

The day after the PAC was formed, Southern paid off overdue taxes, IndyWeek reported.

County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow at the time told the News & Observer that she was “disappointed that a super PAC led by someone who does not live in Durham (and) can spend unlimited corporate money has decided to endorse and promote candidates.” Reckhow did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Will Wilson, a professor of biology at Duke University who ran for county commission in 2012 and opposed the project, told the News & Observer he was “just a bit amazed at how far the 751 folks are willing to go to get their way.”

Correction: October 14, 2019
An earlier version of this article stated that Will Wilson ran city council. In fact, he ran for county commission. 

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