The race for the Dist. 54 seat N.C. House of Representatives has gotten personal, with both candidates decrying mailers sent to constituents containing what they believe are inappropriate and unfair attacks.
Incumbent Rep. Robert Reives II, who holds the Dist. 54 seat — which includes all of Chatham and a portion of Randolph County — took to Twitter last week in a video directly appealing to his opponent, former Chatham County Commissioner Walter Petty, to refrain from “dragging (his) family” into the political campaign.
In the two-minute video, Reives said he had already addressed the issue directly with his opponent, whom he did not name.
“I’m recording this message because, again, I expect to get attacked,” Reives says in the video. “But dragging in my wife, daughter, wife’s little cousin, and now based on yesterday’s comments, my mother — I think that’s too much. I don’t think that’s what politics should be about, I don’t think people should be doing that just to get a vote.”
In politics you expect a tough fight, but that's not why I'm recording this message. Dragging my family into it is too much and not what campaigns should be about. pic.twitter.com/6BYHwXvI3B— Rep. Robert Reives (@electreives) September 27, 2022
He was referring specifically to one of several mailed campaign pieces sent to Chatham County residents that targeted him. One, paid for by dark money group Carolina Leadership Coalition, said Reives co-sponsored legislation that would double mileage reimbursement for politicians; it included a superimposed image of Reives and some of his family members smiling and waving while in a car together. Under the car is a photoshopped campaign banner for Reives that says “Free Gas for Me.” It then reads, “While you paid a fortune at the pump Rep. Robert Reives tried to stick taxpayers with his bill,” referencing a bill Reives endorsed about per diem reimbursements for gas mileage for public officials that did not pass.
CLC sent out two other mailers attacking Reives, including one accusing him of raising taxes and a second criticizing Reives’ support of Black Lives Matter marches in the summer of 2020, saying the veteran legislator “stood with rioters.”
The other ad that Reives, the Democratic House leader, took issue with came directly from the North Carolina Republican Party. In the mailer, Reives is accused of supporting Critical Race Theory in Chatham County Schools because of his donations to a group called “We Are,” which was co-founded by his wife Cynthia’s cousin, Ronda Taylor Bullock.
The ad also references an opinion story in the Chatham Journal — an online site which has published false theories and anonymous online attacks on some Chatham politicians. The Journal piece falsely suggests equity training sessions for school staff done by “We Are” equate to the teaching of CRT in Chatham classrooms. The CRT piece describes Reives as a “woke politician” who is “just too extreme.”
Reives told the News + Record he was pushed to make a public statement because he struggled with the way the women in his family were used in the mailers.
“Becoming a focal point of a campaign just because you happen to know a candidate is unnerving for people who have not chosen to go into politics,” he said.
Reives said this election cycle is the first time he’s experienced any “nastiness” and that it’s been a difficult campaign personally.
“And it’s really surprising to see that in Chatham, because you just don’t see that kind of stuff in Chatham,” he said.
Still, he said he was reluctant to delve into specific issues within the attack ads to avoid giving further attention to the fliers. But he did express that some constituents voiced frustrations to him about the ads.
Ultimately, he said he believes if candidates can’t say something to one another on a stage together, then it shouldn’t be in a mailer.
“I think these attacks have real consequences,” he said.
Last year, Reives co-sponsored a bill with bipartisan support, including House Majority Leader John R. Bell (R-Dist. 10), that aimed to expedite legal processes addressing false or defamatory claims made by political campaigns. The bill did not receive a committee hearing and was never acted upon.
Reives also took issue with a comment mentioning details about his mother made by Petty in a letter to the editor published in last week’s News + Record and other newspapers.
In the letter, Petty refuted the contents of ad paid for by the Democratic Party of North Carolina that attacked his attendance record while serving on Chatham County Board of Commissioners. Petty said he missed a number of meetings because he was carrying out hurricane recovery efforts through his business, Atlantic Power Solutions, a generator sales and service company, and also because he was caring for his son and father who were dealing with health conditions. Petty goes on to write that Reives also missed legislative votes in the summer of 2021 to care for his own mother.
Petty told the News + Record that when he got word that Reives was concerned about one of the ads mailed to voters, he called Reives and agreed that the photo of the family shouldn’t have been included. Petty said he wasn’t involved in the creation of the ad and told Reives he saw it the same time the representative did. Petty also said that he called the state GOP to express that the photo shouldn’t have be included in the ad, but wasn’t aware if those mailers were still being sent out.
Despite the video statement, Petty said he still considers Reives a friend.
“Because I realize these ads that are running aren’t coming directly from him,” Petty said.
He said he would expect Reives to “step up and try and reach somebody” in the manner he did if there was something inappropriate included in a political ad that attacked Petty.
Petty and his Republican colleagues have also claimed the ads attacking him are both quantitatively false and weaponize a nonpolitical issue. One mailer claims Petty missed one-third of Chatham County Board of Commissioners’ meetings in 2019, but public records from the Chatham County Clerk of Commissioners show Petty missed a total of 36 meetings, which is 17% of the 210 total meetings scheduled during his three-year term. In 2019, the year the ad calls him out for missing one-third of meetings, Petty missed five meetings out of 16 total before his April resignation.
N.C. Republican officials cited a News + Record editorial published after Petty decided to resign that was sympathetic to his previous absences as further reason the mailer was false.
“The additional travel and responsibilities have more and more prevented him from attending commissioners’ meetings and functions,” the News + Record editorial read. “He’s also endured the loss of a child. And at the same time, the workload of the board has demanded more of him as well … It’s most decidedly a loss for Chatham County.”
At the time of his resignation, Petty was the only Republican on the five-member board of commissioners. He maintains that during that time he had legitimate reasons to be absent and he hopes voters don’t fall for what he believes are lies about his record.
“I just hope nobody buys into the lies that I’ve abused my position as a county commissioner,” Petty said. “I was there to serve people.”
While the accusations in these ads have gotten personal, they are also dramatized with punchy fonts and bright colors. Political experts say, however, the likelihood these mailers impact voters in high-profile elections is probably minimal, especially in the current political climate when many constituents are already strongly aligned with a party.
Daniel Kreiss, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said the polarization of today means attack ads don’t create the same outcomes they used to. Kreiss said, often, negative attack ads can work to suppress voter turnout, making people less likely to support any political candidate. Today, however, in a deeply divided landscape, negative ads can create a rallying cry for partisanship.
“So it’s sort of like, ‘If you attack my team, I’m gonna like my team even more, and be motivated to defend my team, and then be actually more likely to vote,’” Kreiss said.
When it comes to the use of family in attack ads, thought, he said that typically tends to be completely off limits.
“But either way, again, anytime you use any image, or any references to someone else’s family that also open up yourself to charges from the other side, that you’re politicizing someone’s family and precisely makes you vulnerable to a critique of that sort,” he said.
Travis Ridout is a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University and serves as co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. He said it’s difficult to determine the impact of direct mailers versus online or broadcast ads because there isn’t enough research examining the comparison.
On one hand, in an environment where constituents are inundated with online advertising, physical mailers may stand out and be more effective, he said. On the other hand, he also said some online ads are placed over and over, and repetition can boost their effectiveness.
With negative ads, factors such as the timing of the attack or the ability to draw media attention can also add to the impact.
“There’s some research showing that negativity, kind of before one has made a voting decision, can be effective in really modifying your opinions,” Ridout said. “But if it’s after you’ve made your decision, then effective negativity may be more to demobilize.”
Attacks that focus on a candidate’s character, family or religion, as opposed to issues, can provoke voter backlash, he said, referencing then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s 2008 “godless” campaign ad against Kay Hagan as the two competed for one of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats. The ad questioned Hagan’s faith because she attended a fundraiser at the home of someone involved in an atheist advocacy group. Hagan responded with her own ad that has been cited as an aid in boosting support and eventually securing her victory in the election.
In general, the percentage of political ads that are negative and attack opponents has risen from the 1970s to around 2010, Ridout said. Since then, that percentage has plateaued at a fairly high level, he said, though it’s challenging to quantify negativity and how it’s defined, whether as an ad simply attacking a candidate or one being more uncivil in its tone.
Ultimately, Ridout says, on average, negativity does not work to suppress voter turnout. But he believes its impact on participation does depend on the person and how they will respond to negative ads.
“For some people, it makes them angry, and makes them want to participate,” he said. “On the other hand, there are others who say, ‘Oh my God, they’re just slinging mud. And why would I want to participate in this process? These candidates both look awful to me, because all they can talk about is how awful the other one is.’ So I think it does depend on the individual, and for how that person is going to respond.”
Some Chatham County residents who received the mailers took issue with them, saying they had racial overtones. One such voter was Pittsboro resident David Scott who said he believed the mailer targeting Reives was racially insensitive. Scott, a lifelong Democrat, said in a text exchange with Petty that he was disappointed because he felt the mailers were dishonest and appealed to “the worst instincts of voters.”
“Pretending that an African American candidate is pro crime hearkens back to the ugliest and darkest politics in the history of North Carolina,” Scott wrote.
Petty backed the claims in the ads in the exchange, though in an interview with the News + Record, said that he could not see the parallels in the ads containing racial overtones and that he will call racial issues what they are and does not tolerate them.
Stephen Wiley, director of the North Carolina House Republican Caucus, had a role to play in the final approval of one of the ads which upset Reives. He oversees many of the mailers sent out by the N.C. Republican Party, including the flier attacking Reives about CRT that invoked his wife’s cousin by calling out “We Are.”
He told the News + Record that all mailed ads criticizing other candidates from his office go through a three-question test: Is it accurate? Do people care about it at the ballot box? And is there no other way voters could find out about the issue?
He said if the ad passes these tests, then he feels “almost a moral obligation” to send the mailer to voters.
“For a negative piece, we have a really high bar for what we will send from our entity,” Wiley said.
He said the proofreading process on negative ads usually has more than 10 people including attorneys and other Republican House staffers.
“I believe we did not editorialize, we just laid out the facts,” Wiley said, referencing the CRT ad. He said that particular ad took a week and a half to approve because he wanted to ensure the ad didn’t come across as attacking Reives for his race, but rather focused on the policy of CRT.
Wiley said he felt it was a valid charge against Reives because he believes most voters do not support CRT in the classroom, regardless of party. A national CBS poll from February showed 41% of voters who had heard of the topic said they had an unfavorable view of CRT, while 49% said they held favorable opinions of the topic.
As for the ad itself, he said the N.C. Republican House Caucus was not aware of Reives’ familial connection to “We Are” and he maintains the ad is still relevant to voters.
“I had no idea that his wife’s cousin was involved with [“We Are”] because frankly, how would I know?” Wiley said.
Taylor Bullock, the cousin of Reives’ wife, is the co-founder and executive director of We Are, a nonprofit organization that focuses on anti-racism education and provides training to children, families and educators.
Targeted pushback is not new to Taylor Bullock or the organization — in the past year, N.C. Republican politicians Tim Moore and Phil Berger have both posted critical messages on social media about the organization. In particular, Moore, the House Speaker, posted a tweet in April that called We Are an “organization focused on promoting CRT” and linked to a News & Observer article about Wake County’s Millbrook High School being approved for an educator training grant with the nonprofit. That tweet initiated an uptick in targeted responses and negative attention against the organization, Taylor Bullock said.
Though there were no explicit threats, she said some of the online comments made her question whether they constituted communicative violence.
“We didn’t know how far some of these people would take what they were doing,” she said. “And so, you know, these are people who were local, and these are not people from all across the country.”
As a result, We Are increased security measures at its office. Taylor Bullock said she also used additional security measures at her home and communicated with her children’s school about the influx of negative online responses.
Though the mailer about Reives’ donation sponsored by the N.C. Republican Party does not mention Taylor Bullock by name, it references We Are and a Facebook fundraiser for the organization that Reives donated to in October 2019. With the mailer, she said she believes it didn’t have the impact the GOP had perhaps hoped it would, especially because it’s a physical flier that didn’t hyperlink to the organization or use her name.
“But I know who it is, and the people who know me and my family, we know what they put out there,” she said. “And we’re also still being cautious.”
It's difficult to fight a theory, Taylor Bullock said. She says she feels like the targeting of her and We Are is an example of individuals ascribing negative attributes to critical race theory and projecting those emotions towards a tangible body. Her organization has no hidden agenda when it comes to CRT, she said, and drumming up fear regarding critical race theory is part of a white supremacist movement.
“This is like a win-at-all-costs type election season that we’re in right now, and this is harmful,” Taylor Bullock said, referencing the series of targeted responses both the organization and she have faced.
She also said she knows political campaigns have targeted family members, and is someone who has an understanding of whiteness, critical race theory and history and an understanding of what has happened to Black political leaders “at the hands of white supremacy.” But familial attacks in political campaigns are not something she’s personally experienced.
“And I think when it hits your family, it’s different,” she said. “Because it’s not something that you study in a book. It’s not history, it’s real time.”
Now that the election is less than 35 days away, media experts encourage voters to do their own research on candidates and seek out political fact-checking.
“The world is complicated, but we should also then have a norm though that, you know, you’re not deliberately making false claims, you’re not saying and doing things just to mislead the public,” Kreiss said.