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Ad Feud Dominates N.C. Gubernatorial Campaign

BY James Herriott
by James Herriott on 9/21/00.

In an election season filled with allegations of unethical behavior, Republicans seemed to have locked on a single topic in the North Carolina gubernatorial race.

The latest controversy centers around a series of state-funded public service announcements created by Attorney General Mike Easley -- the Democratic nominee for governor. Former Charlotte Mayor and Republican gubernatorial nominee Richard Vinroot alleges that the ads, aimed at increasing awareness of predatory lending practices, promoted Easley's gubernatorial bid.

The ads aired between 1993 and 1999, costing the state more than $ 1 million.

Easley's opponents have argued he violated a 1997 law prohibiting public service announcements that lend publicity to a candidate in an election year.

In June, State Auditor Ralph Campbell ruled that these ads were legal. In a separate case a Wake County court dismissed similar charges filed by N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy -- a Wake County-based political watchdog group. The group is in the process of appealing that decision.

Last month, the state Republican Party also filed a civil suit against the North Carolina Department of Justice for not cooperating with its investigation by withholding certain public documents.

The Easley campaign has denied any wrongdoing and threatened to place a countersuit for misrepresenting the attorney general. Easley spokesperson Amanda Crumley said Vinroot's emphasis on these ads will be ineffective in his bid for the governorship.

"Mr. Vinroot is so tunnelvisioned at discrediting Mike Easley that he doesn't have time to discuss the issues," she said. "He needs to tell people why he ought to be governor. He hasn't done that yet."

Republicans countered that their campaign ads criticizing the public service announcements are eliciting a large response.

"I'm seeing articles in newspapers and letters to the editors saying that they want to know about Mike Easley's ads," said Chris Neeley, a campaign manager for Vinroot. "If you want tough debates, go back to the Lincoln-Douglas debates ... It served the people well by bringing out the truth about the opponent."

But Amy Piniak of the North Carolina Democratic Party is concerned that Vinroot was not restricting his negative comments about Easley to his record as attorney general.

"I'm a little worried about Richard Vinroot's negativity," she said. "I'm sure you've heard his comments about Mike's height."

In the past, Vinroot -- who is 6'10" -- has referred to the 5'10" Easley as "the little guy."

Many, including University of North Carolina Professor of Political Science Thad Beyle, have cited such comments and the ad debate as representative of a larger problem in North Carolina politics.

"Generally Easley is ahead (in the polls) and the tone of the Vinroot ads suggest that they are behind," he said. "You don't run negative ads if you're not behind -- unless, of course, you are Jesse Helms."

In fact, Vinroot's campaign is managed by Carter Wrenn -- who has also directed each of Jesse Helms' campaigns.

For many, mudslinging and intense competition is an unwritten rule of North Carolina politics, but some pundits noted that this year's campaign has been more intense than many others.

"North Carolina campaigns over the years have been very hard-hitting," said Dan Gurley, political director of the state Republican Party. "Part of it is due to the open seat this year. Both sides realized the competitive nature and got started early."

Beyle said candidates traditionally resorted to such practices as a means of hiding weak understanding of complicated social and economic issues.

"You go back to the 1950s and the Senate race ads were racist. They asked who was pro-black ... They wanted to awaken the white vote," he said.