TV ad in Supreme Court race sponsored by murky super PAC

Paul Newby


by STUART WATSON / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc

Posted on October 23, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Updated Saturday, Oct 12 at 1:56 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You might call it an earworm–one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head and like it or not it won’t come out. But in this case the banjo-jangling toe-tapper has a name attached to it: Paul Newby, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice.

There’s about three-quarters of a million dollars in airtime attached to it as well, but the money is considerably harder to track down. The reason? The ad didn’t come from the candidate. It was produced and aired by a so-called super PAC, in this case an independent non-profit calling itself the NC Judicial Coalition.

So far, the Judicial Coalition has yet to report who exactly contributed to the ad. And that has raised questions and criticisms from Newby’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, who has made the super PAC itself an issue.

The NC Supreme Court is supposed to be nonpartisan. But Republican justices hold a 4-3 majority, even though the Chief Justice, chosen by fellow justices, is a Democrat from Charlotte, Sarah Parker. So in the current election, the swing vote on the court is up for grabs.

Republicans backing incumbent Justice Paul Newby are worried about name recognition, especially since the challenger carries a very recognizable name: Sam Erwin IV. Known to his friends as “Jimmy,” Erwin is a judge on the state Court of Appeals and carries the name of his famous grandfather, Senator Sam Ervin, who chaired the Watergate Hearings.

“I mean, let’s be honest about it,” Justice Newby said in an interview with NBC Charlotte recorded earlier this month in Raleigh. “The difficulty is nobody knows who the judges are and often people will react and vote--if they know--they'll vote by name.”

So prominent Republicans including the former chairman of the state party, former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, formed their own super PAC and proceeded to dump more money into airing the banjo-picking jingle than both candidates spent on their own TV spots combined.

The NBC Charlotte I-Team punched in the numbers from political ad buys recorded at the Federal Communications Commission since August and the costs of airing the spots, not including production costs, topped $700,000 Tuesday.

That means the maddening jingle will be repeated 868 times on the airwaves, only to be re-repeated by kids singing in the back seat of the minivan. The producers of the political spot only hope mom and dad will remember the name when they step in the voting booth–in a positive way.

But Judge Ervin is concerned that all the super PAC money tarnishes the public’s confidence in the state’s highest court. He’s produced a TV spot of his own, not currently airing in Charlotte, that raises the pointed question: “Why are they spending all this money? What do they expect in return?”

“I’m concerned if we have a large influx of money from either in-state or out-of-state money that's clearly got an ideological tinge to it, and a candidate is supported on that basis, what does that do to the perceived impartiality of the court system,” Judge Erwin asked.

Justice Newby says he doesn’t look at contributions–his own or his opponents.

“I try to insulate myself,” Newby said. “I don’t want to know.” But when it comes to super PAC contributions, it’s hard to find the names contributors even if you want to.

Tom Fetzer said by phone he would call NBC Charlotte back by 6 p.m. last Tuesday. He has not returned repeated phone calls.

So far, the NC Judicial Coalition has yet to report what it spent on the ads, or more importantly, what individuals, businesses and interest groups contributed to them. A report is due in the NC State Board of Elections on Monday. But it may not include contributions and payments from the month of October, so voters may not find out who paid for the campaign until after the election.