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Campaign finance: Over $200,000 raised in the Wilmington City Council race

Campaign finance documents spread out on WHQR's somewhat disorganized desk.
Benjamin Schachtman
Campaign finance documents for the 2023 Wilmington City Council candidates.

Campaign finance records for the Wilmington City Council race show candidates have a range of fundraising results: nearly $100,000 on the high end and zero dollars on the low end.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect Neil Anderson's campaign finance information. More info at the end of the article.

Having a bigger — or the biggest — campaign war chest doesn’t automatically translate into a win in the polls. But it can certainly help candidates get their messages across, which might even cut through the voter apathy that seems to plague municipal elections.

This year there are technically eight candidates running — although incumbent Mayor Bill Saffo is unopposed and hasn’t reported raising any money (although he still has over $36,000 in his campaign fund from previous years).

The other seven are running for three seats. Candidates include two incumbents — Neil Anderson, who has served three terms since 2011, and Kevin Spears, who was first elected in 2019 — and five challengers — John Lennon, Kathryn Bruner, Marlowe Foster, Salette Andrews, and David Joyner.

The top fundraiser, by far, has been Lennon, who had raised at least $95,000 by late September — the lion’s share of roughly $200,000 in documented campaign donations. Lennon’s campaign has been supported by a veritable who’s who of real estate development and construction, including nearly $15,000 from founders and employees of Cape Fear Commercial and dozens of other $1,000-plus donations from builders, realtors, contractors, and others involved in the development world.

By contrast, according to the limited documentation provided by Spears’ campaign, he’s neither raised nor spent a cent in this year’s election. However, it’s worth noting that in 2019 Spears raised just over $2,000 (much of which is still in his campaign fund four years later) and received the second-highest number of votes, more than incumbents Neil Anderson and Paul Lawler.

Several candidates received $6,400 donations, the new maximum contribution per election (the limit was raised from $5,600 at the beginning of 2023).

It’s worth noting that while the Wilmington City Council race is technically nonpartisan, the county Democratic and Republican parties both provide support in ways that don’t necessarily show up on campaign finance reports. The Republican party is supporting Anderson, Bruner, and Lennon. The Democratic party is supporting Andrews, Joyner, and Spears (the party narrowed its focus, excluding Marlowe, after a straw poll in July).

You can find local candidates’ campaign finance reports here. Some key takeaways are below. Note, these are based largely on the 35-day report which covers campaign fundraising and expenses up to September 26, 2023. Those reports are due October 3. Note: Bruner’s campaign filed her 35-day report with the state, not the county; you can find it here. Also, due to a technical issue between Joyner’s campaign and the State Board of Elections, his 35-day report is not yet available. New Hanover County Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens confirmed the 35-day reports are due on October 3, but noted delays aren’t out of the ordinary.

Spears had not yet filed one as of late last week, but said it would be soon. This article will be updated with data from Spears’ and Joyners’ reports when they are available.

Kathryn Bruner

Bruner’s campaign has raised around $25,000 as of late September. Top donations include $5,200 from realtor Michael Rokoski, $4,200 from billboard mogul Grey Vick, owner of Grey Outdoor, LLC, $2,000 from Coldwell Banker Seacoast Advantage CEO Timothy Milam, $1,100 from realtor Bruce Kemp, $1,000 from yoga teacher Kayla Coyne, and $1,000 from waste management business owner Wesley Wooten.

Bruner received $425 from the North Carolina Republican Party. There was also a $250 donation in mid-September from former New Hanover County Commissioner and current UNC Board of Governors and New Hanover County Endowment board member Woody White — not a major donation, relatively speaking, but nonetheless an endorsement from an influential conservative in the Wilmington area.

Bruner also donated just over $2,000 of her own money to the campaign.

Top expenses for Bruner’s campaign include roughly $4,000 for billboards from Grey Outdoor, LLC, $2,000 for ads in the Wilmington Business Journal (and about $500 for tickets to the Journal’s ‘Power Breakfast'), and $2,000 for digital ads with Port City Daily.

Kevin Spears

Spears’ mid-year report listed no receipts or expenditures, and around $2,700 cash on hand in the campaign fund. His campaign has not yet filed a 35-day report, although Spears said it would be filed soon.

David Joyner

Due to a technical issue at the State Board of Elections, Joyner’s 35-day report data was not available. Joyner said his campaign had raised $26,216.69 so far.

Joyner’s mid-year report notes the campaign raised $10,000 by the end of June. Major donations include $1,400 from Rick Angeletti, a program manager at Google, $1,000 from Anthony Dominick, a physician with Novant.

Much of Joyner’s mid-year fundraising has come from smaller donations under $500. Joyner also put $1,000 of his own money into the campaign.

Joyner’s campaign expenses were pretty modest at the mid-year mark, less than $800.

Marlowe Foster

Foster has raised over $21,000 as of late September, according to his 35-day report. A significant portion of that has come from over 100 smaller donations between $100 and $500. His top donations include $1,600 from Keith Barnhardt, founder of 101 Mobility, and $1,000 from his mother, Alma Foster, a retired educator.

Foster also received smaller donations from two local elected officials — $450 from Democratic New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple and $250 from Republican Wilmington City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark — a sign, perhaps, of the kind of bipartisan support Foster has sought to garner in race that, again, is nonpartisan — but only technically.

Foster's campaign spent around $14,500 through late September. Top expenses included $3,000 on video ad production and $4,000 paid to South Bridge Political Partners, LLC, a consulting company founded by Clayton Hamerski and his partner Carter Jewell; Hamerski also ran Rob Zapple’s campaign in 2022.

Salette Andrews

Andrews’ campaign raised roughly $22,000 by late September.

The top donor has been Marcia Morgan, a fellow Democrat who challenged incumbent State Senator Michael Lee in a contentious and expensive race for District 7 in 2022. Morgan’s campaign committee donated $5,000 to Andrews’ campaign in July, according to a 48-hour notice report. Morgan also made two donations as an individual totaling $1,400. All told, Morgan and her campaign donated $6,400.

Other top donors included $1,000 from both Donna Philips and Lesa Crocker. Andrews has also garnered a significant number of small donations of $50 or less (those don’t require identifying the donor).

Andrews’ biggest expense so far has been $6,000 paid to Blue Ridge Campaign Group, a Raleigh-based consulting firm.

John Lennon

By late September, Lennon’s campaign had raised over $95,000. Lennon recently finished a term on the Wilmington Planning Commission. Since 2014, he’s been director of operations at River Bluffs, a residential development in northern New Hanover County. His campaign received strong support from the development community, with donations of $1,000 or more from dozens of engineers, contractors, builders, and developers.

Lennon received $1,000 donations from two members of the New Hanover County Endowment board, Chair Bill Cameron, CEO of Cameron Management, and Spence Broadhurst, regional president of First National Bank and former Wilmington mayor.

His campaign also received $12,800, the maximum combined donations from Denis Cronin and his wife Linda; Denis Cronin is a longtime philanthropist and real-estate investor from New York who is one of the owner-developers of River Bluffs, where Lennon works.

Lennon’s committee also reported a fundraiser at Cape Fear Country Club valued at $2,300 as an in-kind donation.

Several committees donated to Lennon’s campaign, including $2,000 contributions from both the NC Home Builders and NC Realtors PAC. Republican County Commissioner Dane Scalise’s committee donated $250.

Lennon’s campaign had the highest expenditures of any city council candidate by late September — $35,000.

Top costs included $3,500 to Elizabeth DeBiasi Consulting, LLC (DeBiasi is also Lennon’s campaign treasurer) and $6,500 to Money Island, LLC — a political consulting firm run by Lennon’s son Preston, a former reporter who also ran Republican County Commissioner LeAnn Pierce’s campaign in 2022 and did some public relations work for Cape Fear Commercial/Cape Fear Development.

Top advertising expenses included roughly $3,900 for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal, $3,100 for billboards, $2,000 for Port City Daily, and $2,250 for yard signs. Lennon's campaign also dispersed $500 to the New Hanover County GOP for door tag printing and delivery.

Neil Anderson

Started the election with about $3,300 — has raised about $12,100 total.

Top donations include $1,00 from Front Street Brewery owner Thomas Harris, $1001 from Hank Estep of Griffin-Estep Insurance, $1,000 from David Honeycutt, who works in construction, $500 from contractor McKinley Dull, and $500 from Bill Schoettelkotte of Cape Fear Commercial. Anderson’s campaign also received $350 from architect Chris Boney, the chief relationships officer for LS3P, and $500 from developer David Spetrino.

Top expenditures for Anderson include $6,000 to Firelux, a boutique ad agency that produced and edited video ads for the campaign.

Note: Due to what appears to be a technical error in the Board of Elections campaign finance reports, the section of Neil Anderson's filing that typically shows how much an individual has donated during a given election cycle instead appeared to show the total donations from that person over Anderson's history as a candidate (e.g. totals for the 2011, 2015, 2019, and 2023 campaigns). This did not substantially change the report of Anderson's overall fundraising for 2023, but it did make individual donors look as if they had given more this year than they actually had. WHQR did not catch the issue and we are responsible for the resulting inaccurate information; we regret the error and have updated the article.

The original paragraph in this article appeared as below:

Top donations include $3,000 from developer Steve Anderson, $2,400 from contractor Chris Reid, $2,762 from Front Street Brewery owner Thomas Harris, $2,335 from Hank Estep of Griffin-Estep Insurance, $1,750 from contractor McKinley Dull, $1,750 from Bill Schoettelkotte of Cape Fear Commercial. Anderson’s campaign also received $1,100 from architect Chris Boney, the chief relationships officer for LS3P, and $500 from developer David Spetrino.

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.