Editor’s note: this article has been updated to include more information from campaign finance reports.
A full-page ad taken out in the September 30 edition of the News & Observer claiming downtown Raleigh was in danger of becoming “DrunkTown” was met with intense ridicule as it spread across social media throughout the day.
Credited to political action committee Wake Citizens for Good Government, the ad was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between a contingent of downtown Raleigh residents and bar owners & patrons over how vibrant the city’s core should be.
A text change ordinance that would have tightened sidewalk dining restrictions was first brought before City Council in June. Two months later on August 4, councilors voted 5-3 to curtail the hours of sidewalk dining to midnight Sunday-Thursday and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The ordinance is intended to cut back on the noise and mess residents say comes with the large crowds drawn to the city’s core.
The restriction is currently in a 90-day trial period. If no action is taken, the ordinance will remain in place.
The recent full-page ad in the News & Observer claimed that “some on the Raleigh City Council believe we should allow the bar and nightclub owners to define our city’s center,” and included a photo of a man who appeared to be intoxicated leaning against a lamppost.
The ad singled out at-large councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin as someone trying to “reshape the city’s downtown” and claimed that she was pushing candidates Ashton Mae Smith and “Mike” (his name is Matt) Tomasulo in a bid for control of city hall.
Wake Citizens For Good Government
The political action committee which ran the ad, Wake Citizens For Good Government, was first organized in September 2009. The oldest available filing with the Wake County Board of Elections is from July 2010 and lists Leslie Karlsson as the group’s treasurer and Wallace & Nordon as the group’s attorneys.
In a filing from June 2011, Stephen Wrinn is listed as the group’s treasurer. Wrinn remained treasurer through at least the July 2013 filings, and was replaced by the group’s current treasurer Michael Schierbeek sometime between then and the September 2013 filings.
Over that period, the group advocated for candidates they deemed “progressive and pro-education.”
Although the ad was critical of Baldwin, the group Friends of Mary-Ann Baldwin donated $1,000 to Wake Citizens in October 2014. According to the Indy Weekly, Baldwin posted a message on Facebook noting that the donation had been for get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Senator Kay Hagan and various Wake County Commissioners.
Although Wake Citizens has continuous records with the county board of elections beginning in 2010, including one made available on the evening of September that contained next to no information, its records with the state of North Carolina only began with a “filing of organization” in 2013.
On June 15, 2015, Schierbeek filed a certification to close committee with the state, effectively shutting down the group. A July 2015 filing with the county board of elections made no mention of this closure.
The July filing indicated that while it had started off the period ranging from January 2015-July 2015 with $0, it received $1,000 on February 6 from the founder and CEO of Public Policy Polling C. Dean Debnam. On May 26, 2015, it received $232.25 from another political action committee, A Better Carolina PAC. This PAC shared the same PO Box mailing address as Wake Citizens.
A June filing with the state of North Carolina indicates that Debnam gave the organization $3,000, also on February 6.
Over the January-July reporting period, Wake Citizens reported a total of $809 in expenditures, $797.50 of which was paid to Schierbeek for accounting services.
On September 23, 2015 as part of filing of organization, Schierbeek wrote a letter to Amy Strange, the state’s Deputy Director of Campaign Reporting, indicating that the “organizers wished to re-open the committee.” Local firm Bailey & Dixon were referred to as the group’s attorneys. A disclosure form filed the same day indicated no assets or expenditures.
Schierbeek did not respond to questions yesterday from The Record, and there was no one present to answer the phones at Debnam’s firm Public Policy Polling. Within 15 minutes of contacting the polling company through its website, Michael Weisel, an attorney with Bailey & Dixon, sent a response.
The statement, now on the group’s Facebook page and attributed to “Dean Debnam, Chair of WCGG IE PAC” notes that the group became involved in the current election because “Raleigh residents are being left out of the conversation and they deserve a voice in what is happening to our downtown.”
Voter registration records indicate that Debnam resides in District E, not far from the North Hills mixed-use development in an area sometimes referred to as Midtown Raleigh. Schierbeek, according to voter registration records, resides in Chatham County.
Debnam owns a variety of properties throughout the city, including the Boylan Pearce building on Fayetteville Street. He told the News & Observer that he plans to move there.
UPDATE: The selection below has been updated to reflect additional information.
Debnam contributed $1,000 to the reelection campaign of Bonner Gaylord in District E on April 23. The donation was listed under the name “Dean Dean Debman” although the address listed traces back to Debnam’s residence.
Gaylord voted against the sidewalk dining ordinance on August 4.
Debnam also contributed $2,000 to the campaign of Dickie Thompson for District A on September 11 and $2,000 to the campaign of Nancy McFarlane on February 16.
McFarlane voted in favor of the sidewalk dining ordinance on August 4.
Debnam spent the most money in the at-large race, however, as he hit the contribution limit with $5,100 donated to the reelection campaign of Russ Stephenson. The breakdown: $1,000 on March 11 and another $4,100 on August 13.
Stephenson voted in favor of the sidewalk dining ordinance on August 4.
Stephenson on Twitter decried the ad:
183 Tweets in 13 Hours
Stephenson was far from the only one to mention the ad on Twitter. The hashtag #DrunkTown was used 183 times between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on September 30. According to analytics from Twitonomy, the most “engaging” user related to the trend was @NewRaleigh, an account with more than 42,000 followers. @NewRaleigh had 36 favorites, 14 retweets and three mentions related to the topic.
The account’s first post about the subject didn’t even include the hashtag; it contained a photo of the ad with the caption “What is this garbage?” and was retweeted 45 times.
The ad was mocked for everything from the picture (which is unlikely to have been taken in downtown Raleigh, due to the design of the lamppost and the visible freeway sign in the background) to its description of the city as “DrunkTown.” A full selection of tweets including the #DrunkTown tag can be found at the bottom of this article.
It should also be noted that while the style of lamppost found in the picture is similar to those found in Debnam’s neighborhood, there does not appear to be a nearby street from which the photograph could have been taken.
The ad sparked a lot of discussion on Twitter, including a caption contest for the picture kicked off by a writer for the site Raleigh & Company, which brought in responses that included “When it gets too weird at Neptunes,” “When you see an ITB bumper sticker on a Prius” and “When you realize the band you like that no one has heard of isn’t playing @hopscotchfest”
Others brought up Raleigh’s long history with drinking establishments, noting that Raleigh’s founding in 1792 was due in large part to its proximity to the popular Isaac Hunter’s Tavern.
For a brief look at some of the history of drinking in Raleigh, check out our accompanying article: Raleigh’s Besotted Past.
Twitter’s Reaction to “DrunkTown”