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On the eve of the 2022 elections, a look at New Hanover County commissioner candidates’ campaign finances

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Over $250,000 in campaign donations has gone into the race for New Hanover County commissioner.

At least a quarter-million dollars of campaign donations have gone into the 2022 race for New Hanover County commissioners, where four candidates are vying for two open seats.

Running for elected office isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. Some state representative races, like the tough battle over North Carolina’s Senate District 7, reach into the millions of dollars.

Related: The NC-7 Senate race is breaking campaign spending records with state party money

But even local races have been bringing in serious money.

Here’s a look at the four candidates running for the county’s Board of Commissioners, in order of fundraising levels: Republican challenger LeAnn Pierce, Democratic incumbent Rob Zapple, Republican challenger Tom Toby, and Democratic Challenger Travis Robinson.

The following figures are from the final campaign finance report due before the election, the third-quarter report filed in late October. During the period between the end of the third quarter and the election, donations larger than $1,000 trigger the requirement for a report to be filed within 48 hours.

LeAnn Pierce

Pierce has taken the lion’s share of cash: well over half the money raised for the NHC Commission race. A former Carolina Beach councilwoman and mayor, Pierce raised $145,782.88 over this election cycle, with just shy of $15,000 coming from Political Action Committees, or PACs.

Those PAC donations included $5,600 from the NC Realtors PAC, $5,600 from the Lower Cape Fear Republican Women’s Club, and $2,000 from the NC Home Builders Association.

Top individual donors included $5,600 from Joseph McKinney, Jr., a senior manager for Evolve Companies, developer of Hawthorne Apartments in the Wilmington area, $5,600 from Joan Norris, owner of the Norco management company, Elisabeth Struckell, a UNCW professor of management, and $5,400 from John Marinelli, CEO of plastic manufacturer Polyquest.

Other top donations included $2,000 from developer and former fellow Carolina Beach council member Steve Shuttleworth, $3,000 from members of the Swain family-owned development company, $2,000 from developer Brian Eckel (who donated back in January), $3,000 from stalwart GOP supporter Hank Estep, $2,500 from developer D Logan, and $2,500 from Susie Sewell, executive director of the Camp Schreiber Foundation.

Pierce also drew support from local Democrats, including $1,000 from attorney Jim Lea (who is part of the west bank Battleship Point project, currently on hiatus), and $1,000 from Spence Broadhurst, former Wilmington mayor and current chair of the New Hanover Community Endowment.

Pierce has spent the majority of her war chest, a total of around $134,000. She’s spent around $75,000 of that since July, when the race heated up after the primaries. The highest single expenditure was television ads, costing around $20,000 during the third quarter. The next most expensive ad costs were mailers and digital ads.

Rob Zapple

Zapple raised roughly $59,500, with $4,300 coming from PACs, including $2,500 from the NC Realtors PAC and $1,000 from the NC Home Builders.

Zapple garnered a large number of ‘aggregate individual’ donations — smaller amounts of $50 or under — as well as a considerable number of medium-sized donations of $200 to $500.

Larger personal donations include $2,500 donations in July from both Calvin Wells, Jr. and Brian Eckel, both of Cape Fear Commercial. Herbert Zimmer, attorney for the Zimmer Development Company donated $1,000 in April. Until recently, that company was slated to partner with the county on Project Grace.

Realtor Jeff Hovis donated $1,000, investor Gilbert Johnson gave $2,500, and frequent Democratic backer (and Zapple’s assistant treasurer), Dennis Dixon gave $1,500.

Zapple also received some recent major donations after the end of the third quarter: $11,000 from local developers in the last weeks of the campaign. Because these were donations of $1,000 or more, Zapple’s campaign filed the appropriate 48-hour reports.

Developer David Swain gave $2,000 and Jim Lea, who also gave to Pierce, gave $1,000 in late October.

Four members of Cape Fear Commercial all gave $2,000 each on October 31 — Brian Eckel, Calvin Wells, Jr., Michael Brown, and William Schoettelkotte. These donations, from Republican members of Cape Fear Commercial, indicate Zapple, like Pierce, is pulling support from across the aisle.

The $8,000 from Cape Fear Commercial also came less than a month after New Hanover County approved the $11.8 million purchase of the Bank of America building, a contract created by Brian Eckel and held by Cape Fear Commercial. The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the purchase, but Zapple in particular was supportive of the move both during the October 3 Board of Commissioners meeting and during WHQR’s joint town hall held with WECT and Port City Daily.

Asked about the timing of the donation, Zapple’s campaign manager, Clayton Hamerski, said, “People in that company, and in the real estate industry, have supported him consistently because they understand that Rob is on the right side of history, particularly while there is a 'build a wall around NHC' candidate on the ballot. Their support of him is not tied to or contingent upon any specific decisions he's made, but the fact that he's able to make responsible decisions on the Commission.”

Hamerski confirmed the ‘build a wall’ candidate was a reference to Tom Toby, who has voiced opposition to major apartment developments cropping up around the county.

Zapple had spent all but around $1,200 of his campaign donations by the end of the third cycle (not including the late-October influx from Cape Fear Commercial). Like Pierce, one his top expenses was TV advertising, followed by mailers.

Tom Toby

Toby raised $30,500 from individuals, with around $3,000 from PACs — $2,000 from the Lower Cape Fear Republican’s Club and $1,000 from the New Hanover County Republican Women’s Club.

Some of Toby’s largest individual supporters included $5,600 before the primary election from Lara Logan, wife of developer D Logan. Other donors include Evelyn Evaarde, owner of FX Air Guns, with $2,000; Board of Elections member Bruce Kemp with several donations totaling $1,250; and Brett Tanner, owner of Pinnacle Trailer Sales, Inc., with donations totaling $2,100.

At the end of the third quarter, Toby had around $4,800 left in his campaign account. His largest campaign expenditure has been radio advertising, followed by digital billboards.

Travis Robinson

Robinson has raised just shy of $2,500 this campaign. He initially certified he would not raise more than $1,000 — which eases some campaign filing requirements — but later withdrew that certification in mid-June.

Just $200 of that came from a single PAC: Back to One PAC, which shares the same address as IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 491, the Wilmington-area branch of the film workers’ union.

The largest donation appears to be from Robinson himself, a $950 check he wrote to the campaign in July.

Including in-kind donations, Robinson has spent more than he has raised in cash donations, much of it on yard signs and postcards.

[Disclosure notice: Rob Zapple is a member of the WHQR Board of Directors, which has no editorial control over news coverage.]

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.