Two Orange County elections, one year apart, present a clear picture of what it will take for us to defend our democracy and ensure free and fair elections in North Carolina.

This week, Chapel Hill Town Councilmember Karen Stegman published a blog post entitled “Is this the end of fair elections in Chapel Hill?” She described a group of wealthy donors who have put together a Super PAC in order to flood Chapel Hill’s local elections with over $100,000 in order to influence the outcome of the race. “Let’s be clear– this is NOT business as usual,” she said. “Do we really want to go down this path here in Chapel Hill?”

But Chapel Hill already went down this path one year ago, and not a single Orange County elected official said a word. In fact, over 20 Orange County elected officials enthusiastically endorsed now-Congresswoman Valerie Foushee, the recipient of almost $4 million dollars of Super PAC money from crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried (now likely to go to jail for stealing money from his investors to influence elections) and Republican-funded pro-Israel PACs. Foushee faced almost no accountability from her endorsers regarding her acceptance of the money, which made NC-04’s Congressional primary race one of the most expensive in North Carolina history.

I served as the campaign manager for Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, whose progressive views caused these Super PACs to spend big on behalf of now-Congresswoman Foushee. We came away from that election more firmly rooted in our belief that big money has no place in our political system, at any level, and we must all be clear and consistent about our values in order to uphold our democracy and fight back against the influence of Super PACs in politics.

In the primary last year, Chapel Hill elected officials were content to silently reap the benefits of Super PAC spending when it was in support of their preferred candidate. But in this year’s local municipal races, they are facing enormous oppositional PAC spending and the outcry has been immediate—as it should be. Hopefully, the combined efforts of local leaders to draw attention to this issue will ensure that the voices of Chapel Hill voters prevail without being unduly influenced by an undemocratic dark money.

We are all united in our desire for free and fair elections, but for our voices as leaders to be credible in the fight to save democracy, we must be consistent in calling out undemocratic Super PAC spending without reservation, no matter the situation. This commitment would be a respectful continuation of the legacy of Chapel Hill’s previous Congressmember, David Price, who spent 35 years in Washington advocating for an end to dark money in elections. 

In a 2012 editorial, Representative Price said of Super PACs: “this undue influence strikes at the heart of our democracy and it renders the principle of one person, one vote irrelevant.” 

Representative Price paved the way for our generation’s fight to defend our democracy, and we should be proud to follow in his footsteps. When the wealthy and well-connected try to buy influence in our political system, they must be held accountable and stopped, no matter which side they are on. To quote a letter that over 60 NC residents sent to the INDY about the Super PAC spending last year: “North Carolinians, and our democracy, deserve better.”

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