Arguably the most influential race on your Election Day ballot is between two men you’ve never heard of. Bob Edmunds and Mike Morgan.
Edmunds is a Republican. Morgan a Democrat. And the victor will decide whether liberals take over or conservative hold their majority on North Carolina’s Supreme Court.
But as in years past a controversial attack ad, paid for by an interest group has started running in the final weeks of the campaign. But this year there is a twist.
First some basics, both Edmunds and Morgan are well qualified to be members of the state’s highest court. Edmunds is seeking re-election, he’s been a Justice for the past 15 years. Morgan has been a Superior Court judge in Wake County for 11 years.
Still, for many voters, what they know about these two candidates will be defined by what they see on TV. Namely what they see in attack ads.
In 2014 the target was a liberal justice. The catch phrase, "Justice Robin Hudson, not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims." The North Carolina Bar Association quickly denounced that ad. Hudson won re-election to the court.
The twist this year? A Democratic-leaning group is targeting a Republican justice. The group’s ad begins with a slithering reptile, and includes racially charged language.
"It’s called the snake," the narrator explains, "a long skinny congressional district along I-85 to segregate African-American voters."
That snake then morphs to a map of North Carolina’s 12th congressional district, which slithers its way from Charlotte, north and east along a narrow corridor then forks into Forsyth County and Greensboro. The narrator continues. "The snake, and others like it were drawn by state legislators as a partisan power grab. And Justice Bob Edmunds, he wrote the decision supporting his party’s discrimination."
The ad concludes by pointing out that district was struck down by federal judges as being an illegal racial gerrymander. It ends with the line "For Supreme Court, we deserve better than Bob Edmunds."
The North Carolina Republican Party quickly fired back. “DEMOCRATS LAUNCH RACE-BAITING AD IN EFFORT TO SEIZE CONTROL OF STATE'S TOP COURT” read the headline spelled out in all capital letters.
Michael Weisel sees it differently. "The ad is factually accurate and completely true."
Wiesel is general counsel and treasurer of NC Families First, the Democratic leaning outside group who’s bankrolling the ad.
So who’s right?
Let’s start with the most evocative claim - the boundaries of North Carolina’s 12th congressional district were drawn by Republicans to segregate African-American voters. Wesiel says that wording was not arbitrary. "The language that has been utilized is only language that was utilized in the case or in media coverage about the case."
Here Weisel is right. Both the dissenting opinion (begins on page 52 of the pdf) in the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling that upheld the boundaries and the Federal ruling that subsequently struck them down referred to segregating minority voters. As did a number of opinion pieces, which Weisel sees as part and parcel to news. "I guess I fail to sort of see the distinction between editorials and news coverage."
As to the claim that Justice Bob Edmunds, wrote the decision supporting the Republican party’s discrimination in drawing the 12th district boundaries, here things get murky.
It is fact that Edmunds penned the decision. But that’s hardly the full, accurate story.
The 12th existed in its long, serpentine like form long before Edmunds was a justice, or Republicans controlled the legislature. The boundaries go back to 1991 says Michael Bitzer a political scientist from Catawba College. Its strange shape was designed from the start as a way to concentrate African-American voters into the district because "The Department of Justice under George H. W. Bush told North Carolina that it didn’t need to create just one majority-minority district for U.S. House but it needed to create two."
The Democrats who then controlled the general assembly complied.
Thus the snake was born as a majority-minority district. Weisel acknowledges this but then ads, "The Republican version drawn after the 2010 census packed even more black voters than certainly the federal courts found necessary. In this case a 51 percent majority."
Republican state lawmakers have always said they were following the law when drawing the boundaries. And point to the fact their map was originally given a thumbs up from the Justice department under President Barack Obama.
There’s another issue with ads like these - who’s really picking up the bill?
Weisel points out North Carolina Families First is a 527 organization which means, "it is completely transparent as to its donors and expenditures." That's true but again it doesn’t give you the full picture.
Public records show as of September 30th the group has exactly two donors. Earlier this year they received $450,000 from the Democratic Governors Association. They’ve already run ads support Roy Cooper’s campaign.
The second more recent donation, $1.48 million from N.C. Citizens for Protecting our Schools. It’s a 501(c)(4) group that does not disclose its donors. So we don’t really know who’s paying for this ad.
But Michael Weisel does. He also works with that group. Weisel declined to disclose its donors.
And while he is quick to criticize Republican outside groups who go after Democrats in judicial races, when pressed as to his role doing the same thing but targeting Republicans he takes a pause then says
MW: "Well, ah, do we want to have a philosophical discussion about public financing? I mean this is a disturbing trend."
TB: "In other words you don’t like the rules but you’ll play the game?"
MW: "Well, as a campaign finance lawyer I think it is bad for the system to have these but it’s foolish to engage in unilateral disarmament."
As they did in 2014, the North Carolina Bar Association has come out against this ad. Kearns Davis, president of the North Carolina Bar Association, issued a statement Tuesday concerning advertising associated with the 2016 general election.
"Advertising or commentary that unfairly attacks or maligns the character of those seeking elective office based on performance of their judicial duties, threatens the public trust on which our courts depend. it is imperative that we as citizens approach the process and the candidates with civility and respect."
A desire which seems only possible if both sides, and their dark money groups agree to disarm. And they're not.
A recently launched Republican leaning group called Fair Judges is expected to start airing this ad today.
"Tired of negative ads?" A man in a bathrobe asks. "Judge Bob Edmunds is a good guy. He’s keeping it honest, fair and clean." Singing ensues.
Apparently they’re betting a peppy jingle is the key to victory in a race that will appear near the bottom of your ballot.
Still, this positive ad has its drawbacks, too. The Fair Judges group will not make their donor list public until after the election. And as with NC Families First, even that doesn’t mean we’ll know exactly who paid to influence your vote for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.