This story was originally published by Joe Killian, NC Newsline
February 22, 2024

When the political fliers started hitting mailboxes in Guilford, Halifax and Northampton Counties last week, it didn’t seem unusual. It is, after all, primary season. Democrats Cecil Brockman and Michael Wray, whose records the fliers praised as “lifting up” their communities, are facing challenges for their state House seats from within their own party.

But a closer look revealed the fliers, first reported by the High Point Enterprise, weren’t just similar, but nearly identical. They lauded Brockman and Wray in the exact same words and format, with only the names and photos to differentiate them. Neither came from either man’s campaign, from the Democratic party or an affiliated group. Instead, they were designed and paid for by the Carolina Leadership Coalition, a conservative nonprofit with deep ties to both North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and a political action committee that supports House Republicans.

“Unfortunately, conservative ideas are under attack every day,” the coalition says on its website. “The Carolina Leadership Coalition engages North Carolinians through education, research, and advocacy to implement these principles in state government. We welcome citizens of all political parties who support these foundational ideas.”

While the coalition generally backs Republicans, Brockman and Wray are the sort of Democrats it can get behind. While the average North Carolina Democrat voted with the Republican legislative majority about 66 percent of the time last year, Brockman and Wray sided with their GOP colleagues much more often — 75 and 88 percent, respectively.

The two Democrats, who have broken ranks with Democrats in votes on the state budget and the regulation of charter schools, have voted with Republicans to overturn vetoes by Gov. Roy Cooper and have aided other veto overrides — including of a bill eliminating some background checks on pistol permits — through their absence.

Still, an actual mailer from a conservative group supporting them in their Democratic primary standoffs surprised many political observers.

Reps. Michael Wray and Cecil Brockman (file photos)

“I think this is a fairly unusual approach to take,” said Michael Bitzer, professor of history and political science at Catawba College in Salisbury. “Partly due to the fact that the parties have become so clearly sorted in ideology and policy perspectives. When you have elected officials who are conceivably willing to work with and vote with the other side, that kind of violates the party unity sense that we have that is so prevalent in American politics right now.”

“We’ve seen instances where it has happened that the other side decides to mingle in the opposition’s primary,” Bitzer said. “But usually it’s to try to get the least electable candidate to November, rather than supporting an incumbent candidate.”

A help or a hindrance?

Brockman and Wray’s Democratic opponents — and groups supporting them — seized on the fliers quickly, touting them as further evidence conservatives consider the two Democratic incumbents such reliable swing votes they’re willing to spend money to keep them in their seats.

Rodney Pierce, the public school teacher running against Wray in the Democratic primary, took to social media to point out that one of the photos — of Wray with popular former Congresswoman Eva Clayton — wasn’t authorized by Clayton. A statement by Clayton herself called the use of the photo unethical and an implied endorsement, something she says she’s avoided in the primary.

“It looks like they just took it from his website — very lazy,” Pierce told Newsline of the photo on the flier. “Very lazy. If you look at it, there are all these claims about what he’s done, but there are no citations. Generally, even on a political mailer, if someone claims something there’s a citation, so you can check it out. When you see they didn’t even do that, you know it’s not serious.”

Newsline couldn’t reach representatives of the coalition this week to ask about the fliers, including their use of various photos of Brockman and Wray.

Wray released his own statement Wednesday, distancing himself from the fliers’ origins but not their content or the group that paid for them.

“As to the mailers that have recently been sent on my behalf, those are independent expenditures that I am not allowed to coordinate or know anything about,” Wray said. “I have a strong record of supporting small businesses in my district and work very hard to bring needed resources back to my district. If outside groups want to highlight my record in this regard, I am delighted.”

Wray did not respond to a follow-up question about the impact a conservative group’s support might have on his support among Democrats in a primary.

It should, Pierce said.

“If Michael Wray wants to vote with Republicans more than any member of his party, more than some Republicans, why not just be a Republican?” Pierce said. “Because he knows it would be hard to get elected in District 27 as a Republican.”

There’s a time and a place for negotiation, Pierce said, particularly when in the minority. But Democrats who conclude they can get something for their own district if they vote for a budget that erodes the public school system while supporting more charter schools and vouchers for private schools is negotiating poorly.

“That’s not representing your community,” Pierce said. “That’s not what people here elected you to do. When you have that kind of voting record, you need the help of these kinds of groups and these kind of mailers.”

Brockman told Newsline Wednesday he had nothing to do with the fliers or the coalition, but stopped short of denouncing them.

“I didn’t even know it was a conservative group until it was reported that it was a conservative group,” Brockman said. “It’s one of those things you can’t really do anything about. It’s 100% illegal for us to have any coordination with these groups.”

While he’s not in lockstep with his party on every issue, Brockman said, he still considers himself a progressive Democrat.

“On principle, on the issues, I stand strong,” Brockman said. “I still stand strong on LGBT issues. I stand strong on women’s rights, women’s health care. I’m endorsed by Planned Parenthood, endorsed by the Teamsters. I stand strong on my record, I’m not worried about a conservative group who sends out a mailer for me at the end of the day.”

Being able to deal amicably and productively with an opposition party with a supermajority should be considered an asset rather than a liability for any elected leader, Brockman said — particularly those who, like him, represent some of the poorer areas of the state with a large Black population. With their legislative majority, Republicans were going to pass the state budget they wanted with or without Democratic votes, he said. Democrats who were willing to work with Republicans were able to bring much needed money and resources back to their communities, he said.

“I was able to bring that money and those resources to more than 30 nonprofits serving our district,” Brockman said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say I have to wait until Democrats are in charge to do that. I was sent to Raleigh to work for my district and I’m going to work for my district.”

Black Democrats are too often asked to toe the party line to the detriment of their own communities, Brockman said.

“The Democratic Party, we have let the white moderate go in there and make deals, and we have called him a statesman for being able to work across the aisle, and get stuff for their district,” Brockman said. “But when you cross the aisle and you get stuff or poor Black district, then suddenly everybody’s up in arms.”

“That’s because people take for granted African American districts,” Brockman said. “They think just because they’re a Black district, that they have to vote a certain way and they can automatically count on them. Like they don’t deserve to have a representative that’s gonna go there and fight for resources for their district. I think my district deserves to have representation that actually will be willing to negotiate and fight for those resources.”

Brockman’s predecessor, Marcus Brandon, made similar arguments during his years representing the 60th District. Brockman was his campaign manager in 2012 when that led to a similar flier controversy. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity mounted a direct mail and robocall “education” campaign to support Brandon, who was facing criticism from fellow Democrats for his support of expanding the number of charter schools allowed in the state.

Like Brockman, Brandon said Black representatives were often taken for granted and as their districts went without and the people they represented were disproportionately impacted.

James Adams, Brockman’s Democratic primary challenger and former president of the High Point NAACP, took to social media Wedesday to refute Brockman’s racial comments.

James Adams is running against Rep. Brockman

“I find it shocking to claim that valid criticism of Representative Brockman’s job performance is in any way linked to the color of his skin,” Adams said.

Brockman’s many absences during key votes — including one to override the governor’s veto of a bill eliminating the pistol permit requirement — speak for themselves, Adams said.

“This effort by Representative Brockman to deflect from his poor performance while in office and to stoke the flames of racial division in our society just to keep his job is sad,” Adams said.

Brockman told Newsline he does regret some absences during key votes, but said they were due to a health problem that has since been resolved. They weren’t ideological, he said.

Bitzer, the political scientist from Catawba College, said the perception that a Democrat may be a conservative group’s preferred candidate in a primary could harm that candidate. But only if the public actually realizes the fliers come from a conservative group, which isn’t obvious from their text. The situation does highlight to a larger issue, Bitzer said.

“The fact that within the party there is obvious tension as to who is working with whom and where the support goes in a primary, I think it speaks to the continued dynamic of parties being umbrellas but the factions beneath those umbrellas not always getting along,” Bitzer said.

In September, the leaders of the Young Democrats of North Carolina, College Democrats of North Carolina and NC Teen Democrats released a joint statement denouncing Democrats — Wray and Brockman among them — who continued to vote with Republicans or allow their bills to become law through their absences. The statement ended with a political warning.

“Let this be your notice,” it read. “March 5, 2024 comes sooner than you think.”

Asked whether he believed the North Carolina Democratic Party encouraged the message or went shopping for primary opponents for he and Wray, Brockman declined to comment — for now.

“I’ll have more to say after the primary,” Brockman said.

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: [email protected]. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡