Beltway influence machine lends aid in ‘welcoming city’ fight

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Opponents dressed in red fill seats at a Winston-Salem City Council meeting as supporters line up to speak in favor of a "welcoming city" resolution. (photo by Jordan Green)

An online petition to prevent Winston-Salem City Council from passing a “welcoming city” resolution is generating a Washington beltway publicity push through a privately held conservative influence outfit with a murky funding structure.

A misleadingly labeled “Petition against Sanctuary City” initiated by an entity called “Focus Forsyth” on the website StandUnited.org has attracted 241 supporters, although the petition does not specify whether the supporters are Winston-Salem residents and eligible to vote in city elections.

Although Councilman Dan Besse withdrew a “welcoming city” resolution from consideration on Monday, Stand United is working to promote opposition to the resolution in the event that it is resurrected. Triad City Beat received an email from a strategic communications fellow at the Pinkston Group, an East Coast public relations firm that specializes in “earned-media exposure,” on Thursday morning with an offer to facilitate an interview with Stand United about the effort to kill the “welcoming city” resolution.

Liz Anderson, marketing coordinator for Stand United, said she could not comment on what if any fee the Pinkston Group received in exchange for promoting the petition opposing a “welcoming city” resolution in Winston-Salem. Stand United’s website identifies the outfit as a “service mark” of Intermarkets, a northern Virginia company that describes itself as “the nation’s leading independent advertising sales management services firm.” Michael Snow is listed as the chief business development officer of Intermarkets. His official biography states that he’s responsible for the growth in the company’s digital products, referencing Stand United as “a logical next step in that evolution.”

Many of the petitions hosted by Stand United carry pro-law enforcement and pro-Trump themes.

One initiated by Stand United itself urges Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate former National Security Advisor Susan Rice for “unmasking” members of the Trump team — that is, un-redacting the names of Trump associates who were not the target of surveillance but were incidentally captured in federal wiretaps. (NBC reported on Monday that Republican and Democratic aides briefed on the matter indicate that Rice did nothing inappropriate.)

Another petition initiated by Faith & Freedom Coalition, an electoral mobilization outfit led by evangelical leader Ralph Reed, calls on the State Department to relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Still another petition, initiated by someone named Gabrielle Seunagal in Alpharetta, Ga., calls on local law enforcement to take a tough line on anti-Trump protesters who destroy property.

Stand United’s website advertises its work with Judicial Watch, Americans for Tax Reform and Americans United for Life, among other groups. As part of what it calls its “Deep State Watch,” the conservative Judicial Watch has recently filed a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit with the US Environmental Protection Agency seeking to uncover “the particular noxious fifth column” of federal employees reported to be using encryption devices to contact media outlets and other groups to express dissent.

Anderson said Stand United doesn’t discuss the financial aspects of petition drives.

“When a group decides to run a sponsored petition, they can work with us; we don’t share how the financials of the organization work,” she said.

The only identifying information for the Winston-Salem petition is an entity called “Forsyth Focus,” Anderson said. An inquiry from TCB to an email provided by Anderson for the group did not elicit a response.

Despite the petition group’s murky identity, its effort to suppress Besse’s “welcoming city” resolution has attracted some high-powered beltway public-relations support. Among the clients listed by the Pinkston Group, which contacted TCB about the petition drive, are Ford Motor Co., the tea party outfit FreedomWorks and publishing houses from HarperCollins to Simon & Schuster. The firm specializes in “earned media” through “1) continuous development of creative, engaging story angles built around announcements, events, new products, or thought leadership opportunities; and 2) an aggressive, intelligent approach to pitching targeted media.”

As for Stand United, the outfit boasts of being “the first open petition platform for those who share conservative values.”

“Each member of our team has worked on the inside of DC politics in some capacity and while it would be easy to become jaded with dishonesty and corruption that exists at our highest levels of government, each member of our crew has become just as impassioned with the desired to uphold the patriotic principles that helped make America the best country in the world: free enterprise, limited government, and individual liberty,” the Stand United website says. “That is why we chose to put our skills to work to empower regular, everyday Americans to fight back against the confining influence of the elite and government and over-reach.” The group also lists Constitutional rights as a core principle.

“Any individual can start a petition,” Anderson said. “Obviously, our petitions and the audience we reach lean a certain way. People of a limited government stance can be on different sides of an issue.”

The Winston-Salem petition reads: “We, as citizens of Winston-Salem, NC and Forsyth County are concerned about the safety and protection of our city and county. The fact that the Winston-Salem City Council is considering a vote to make us a ‘Welcoming City aka Sanctuary City’ where we would harbor illegal immigrants is distressing to us. It will cause considerable loss of funding. The North Carolina General Assembly has passed laws outlawing sanctuary cities and are looking to take away state funding as is the federal government. This could mean higher property taxes to property owners in the city. We could also experience a loss of business prospects, property values could decrease, and crime would definitely increase.”

The petition misrepresents the resolution promoted by Besse, which would not have prohibited the police from gathering information about immigration status or sharing it with federal authorities — as barred by both state law and a January 2017 executive order issued by President Trump.

The resolution does express disagreement with state and federal policy by stating that the city “recognizes that our whole community is safer when victims and witnesses of domestic violence and other criminal activity feel safe in contacting our police for assistance without fear, regardless of their immigration status.”

Some council members decided they couldn’t support Besse’s resolution because they disagreed with its content while others were swayed by threats from the Republican-controlled General Assembly to punish the city by withholding state funds if it was approved. Mayor Allen Joines said on Monday that lawmakers have discussed the possibility of adding the language “welcoming city” to the state law prohibiting sanctuary cities.

The petition hosted by Stand United does not screen out supporters who do not live in Winston-Salem, and Anderson said the best way to determine the residency of supporters would be to review their Zip codes, if the initiator chose to disclose that information. The supporters are only identified to the intiator by their first names and the initial of their last names, she added.

It’s apparent by the comments appended to the petition that many of the signers are not Winston-Salem residents.

“Winston-Salem was my home for 25 years; we now live in an adjoining county,” one commenter named Dave F. wrote. “We are distressed to think you would even consider making WS a refuge for those who break the law. Please protect our communities by voting no to welcoming city.”

Another commenter named Mary H. wrote: “I go to church, shop and dine in Winston-Salem. If they vote for this ridiculousness, I will be forced to take much of my business elsewhere. I would not feel safe in a city that harbors criminals.”

Besse said emails and phone calls from people who were supportive of his resolution outnumbered contacts from people opposed by at least two to one, and possibly as high as three to one.

“Most of the contacts I’ve gotten in opposition are outside my district, outside the city and even outside the county,” Besse said.

The battle against the “welcoming city” resolution may have been won by the opponents at the governmental level, but Besse is shifting the arena. He said on Thursday that he’s reaching out to elected officials and community leaders to sign on to a statement with essentially the same language that would not go before city council for consideration. He said he and Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who publicly supported the resolution, are tentatively looking at May 1 as a release date.

“I’ve redrafted it essentially saying the same things that are found in the ‘whereas’ portion,” Besse said. “It’s couched in the form of a joint statement by these individuals. I’ve already gotten several people to sign on. One is a Forsyth County commissioner. One is a state legislator, in addition to supportive colleagues on city council. A couple people who were going to vote against the resolution say they’re willing to sign the statement as individuals.”