BofA leaves N.C. FREE

Some of North Carolina's largest corporations, including three in Charlotte, said Thursday they pulled their support from N.C. FREE, an influential Raleigh-based group at the intersection of business and politics.

Their decisions follow a dispute over the mission of N.C. FREE, founded in 1983 as a roundtable for corporate executives. Now there's concern over whether the group can survive. Its board of directors is set to meet today.

N.C. FREE is best known for its analysis of N.C. election trends and its skill at predicting the winners of state contests. In recent years, it has also tried to build a political organization designed to raise money, recruit pro-business candidates and encourage corporate employees to vote.

John Davis, N.C. FREE's president, said it represents a return to the group's mission from the 1980s, when it counted Duke Power CEO Bill Lee among its leaders. Davis wants to see more businessmen in the General Assembly.

“We discovered in 1988 that the biggest predictor of an ally on business issues is occupation, not political party,” he said.

But the effort has alienated some Democrats – who have majorities in the N.C. House and Senate – as well as lobbyists and large companies. The companies are concerned that the effort could become partisan, and they don't want to alienate incumbents who aren't businesspeople.

Spokespeople for Bank of America, Duke Energy and Wachovia confirmed Thursday that their companies have either canceled or not renewed their memberships.

In all, “at least a dozen” member companies have left N.C. FREE in recent months, Davis said. And because dues to the group are based on a company's size, the departure of its biggest members has hurt the group's “financial backbone,” he said.

N.C. FREE had revenue ranging from $632,000 to $1.7 million in recent years.

Other companies leaving include Blue Cross Blue Shield and Progress Energy. No company contacted gave a specific reason.