To open the Carrboro Town Council meeting Tuesday night, Poet Laureate Fred Joiner read a poem called “Currency.”
It’s unclear whether Joiner selected the work as an intentional setting-of-the-stage for one of the meeting’s most prominent agenda items—a vote on council member Sammy Slade’s “Resolution Against Super PACs and For Democracy,” presented specifically in the context of the big money contributions dominating the NC-04 congressional election—but regardless, it was a cinematic start to an exceptionally tense meeting.
“A pocket can sometimes be / a kind of prison / I have never lived in / a cash economy where the bill / fold unfolds to find someone / creased in the middle,” the poem, an original work by Joiner, begins.
The poem’s closing lines felt the most pertinent—“a debt to erase / a race, a weight”—which, at least to me, spoke to the questions being raised around the $2.4 million in contributions from AIPAC and a crypto-currency billionaire that candidate and longtime state lawmaker Valerie Foushee has received over the past several months: if Foushee is elected, what will the Super PACs who backed her campaign expect in return? What weight will she carry as she enters the congressional arena? Is there a debt insinuated in these contributions, and if so, how will Foushee erase it?
In discussing the contributions, Foushee previously told the INDY that she “can’t be bought and sold” and that “nobody owns me.” But the fact stands that the contributions have made the race the most expensive Congressional primary in North Carolina history, and to think that there isn’t any kind of quid pro quo involved, seems fairly naive.
During the meeting, Slade, who last week published an op-ed in the INDY speaking out against the “outsized influence of Super PACs” in the race to fill Rep. David Price’s seat, put forth a resolution to condemn the “undemocratic spending” that has shaped the primary. The resolution notes that Price has personally criticized the role of super PACs in diluting “the power of ordinary voters.”
Slade didn’t name Foushee—“This isn’t about a specific candidate, this is about the sanctity of our electoral process,” he said—but it was clear that the money she’s received is what sparked the motion.
Orange County High School math teacher Hannah Blackburn spoke in support of the resolution, describing how the involvement of big money in politics is an equity issue.
“The investment that can be made by a super PAC, driven by the interest of those people who have been able to build up wealth, will not represent the diversity of the country,” Blackburn said. “It will not represent, as was stated [in the resolution], the ‘one person, one vote’ and grassroots principles that this town cares a lot about.”
Before the council voted on the resolution, Slade addressed the hesitations of his colleagues; some feared that passing the resolution would inappropriately influence the election, he said, while others found the issue to be divisive to council relationships. (Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils and council member Barbara Foushee have both endorsed Valerie Foushee in the primary.)
Slade argued that the council’s failure to denounce massive special-interest contributions would be a position in itself.
“Isn’t our silence a form of influence on these elections?” he asked. “Isn’t our silence a tacit agreement that the corrosiveness of this kind and amount of money is okay? This race is being bought now. Now is the time to speak.”
He augmented his assertion with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I was not afraid of the words of the violent, but of the silence of the honest.” (In a previous interview with the INDY, Foushee also quoted MLK in reference to the contributions—“I wonder how many people remember what he said about the most important question, which is, ‘What are you doing?’ You can criticize me all day, but take some of that time and go help somebody”—implying that her years of public service are more significant than the big money donations that she’s received.)
Slade’s resolution failed; it did not receive a second. Seils shared concerns about the resolution’s potential to “uplift one candidate and take a swipe at another.”
“This resolution would have the effect of pulling the town council, as a governing body of a municipality, into an ongoing local election contest,” Seils said. “That is not a place I think the town or the town council ought to be pulled.”
The morning after the meeting, Slade told the INDY that he feels saddened that his colleagues are unable to see this moment for what it is.
“This is something that we would very easily have passed at any other time,” Slade said. “But because it’s touching down now, folks are unable to recognize democracies being undermined.”
In response to Seils’s argument that the resolution would inappropriately influence the election, Slade said “a more inappropriate influence” is the amount of money that has gone into the race, and reiterated that the council’s silence contradicts the values it professes to stand for.
“Often, we think of the vocal part as being damaging,” Slade said. “But the silence is just as damaging.”
Nida Allam and Clay Aiken, who stand alongside Foushee as frontrunners in the Democratic primary, have each criticized—indirectly and directly—the big money contributions that Foushee has received during her campaign.
In a recent ad, Allam stated that “super PACs are spending millions trying to silence me;” at a press conference this morning, as reported by the News & Observer, Aiken said that the contributions have led him to “lose respect” for Foushee, a candidate who he previously held in high regard.
NC Rep. Marcia Morey, whose district is located in Durham, also rescinded her endorsement of Foushee this week and endorsed Allam, citing Foushee’s refusal to disavow “massive out of state donations” from AIPAC and the crypto billionaire.
North Carolina’s statewide primary takes place on Tuesday, May 17. Early voting is underway.
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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.