Politics & Government

Charlotte GOP activist makes a big bet to fight climate change

Jay Faison’s ClearPath Action Fund spent $4.8 million on 15 congressional races, while he personally spent more than $3.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Jay Faison’s ClearPath Action Fund spent $4.8 million on 15 congressional races, while he personally spent more than $3.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Jay Faison likes to say that clean energy is good politics. And last year the Charlotte environmentalist set out to prove it.

His ClearPath Action Fund spent $4.8 million on 15 congressional races, while he personally spent more than $3.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

No one in North Carolina invested more in candidates, parties or super PACs than the one-time businessman turned environmental activist. Beneficiaries included U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and a dozen other Republicans.

“Jay this last cycle proved himself as one of the national players not just a state leader,” says Paul Shumaker, Burr’s top strategist and a former Faison consultant.

On the list of America’s biggest federal campaign donors, Faison came in at No. 55, far behind names like Soros, Adelson and Bloomberg.

But Faison tops a list of North Carolinian donors who gave a record amount of money to federal campaigns in the election cycle: $66 million, according to CRP compared to $47 million in 2012.

“People are giving more because there are more ways to give, and fewer constraints,” says Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “There are many receptacles for large amounts of cash.”

The numbers actually understate the total amount of money spent on the election. Because they include only money reported to the Federal Election Commission, they omit money to state campaigns and unreportable “dark” money given to and spent by nonprofit groups.

New environment

Faison once dismissed what he thought of as “crazy environmentalists.” His epiphany came years ago when his wife persuaded him to go hear a speech on what was then called global warming. He did research on the causes of climate change and became a convert.

In mid-2015, the former businessman and investor decided to put his money where his heart was. He founded ClearPath foundation and PAC to elect Republican politicians who took the environment seriously.

“If you want to change the system, if you want to advocate, you have to play politics,” he said at the time.

In the last election cycle, ClearPath targeted 15 GOP candidates it considered friendly to the environment. It created special websites for each candidate and spent money on digital advertising, including 156 videos, as well as mailers.

It spent more than $500,000 to help GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a congressman whose district includes Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. It’s a district where rising seas and increased flooding have put the environment and its effect on the economy atop the agenda.

“Our district is very focused on this issue, and it was a big issue in the campaign… because of the possible impact it has,” says Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.

Like Burr, Curbelo and a dozen other targeted candidates won their races.

Faison believes the ClearPath money made a difference, helping persuade a number of moderates and independents to back the Republican.

“If we can deliver 5,000 voters, we think we’re an important part of the political pie,” he says. “You’ve also got 13 Republican candidates who understand the politics around this issue.…Our goal all along was to advance conservative clean energy and prove it’s politically advantageous. I think we’ve done that.”

But the Washington environment has changed.

President Donald Trump has been skeptical of climate change, though he recently said he had an “open mind” about it. His choice of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has criticized in the past, has drawn fire from environmentalists. Faison says he isn’t worried.

“Republicans are increasingly supporting our clean energy agenda for many reasons that have nothing to do with their views on climate change,” he says. “…I doubt they all agree on whether climate change is a problem that needs to be solved quickly, if at all. But they back important pieces of our agenda.”

New names

All together, North Carolina’s top 10 federal contributors gave more than $7 million. Like Faison’s, most of the money went to Republicans. But North Carolina’s only other million-dollar donor backed Democrats.

John Sall and his wife Virginia gave over $1 million to Democratic candidates and party groups around the country. Sall co-founded SAS, a $3 billion software company based in Research Triangle Park.

Betty Craven, a Chapel Hill philanthropist, gave $314,000 to Democratic party groups and candidates, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Rounding out the top 10 list are traditional GOP donors, Raleigh businessmen Bob Luddy and Art Pope, Jim Goodnight – the other co-founder of SAS – Greensboro investor Louis DeJoy, retired Winston-Salem executive John Whitaker and Wilmington businessman Fred Eshelman.

New to a list of top donors is Dan DiMicco, former chief executive of Charlotte-based Nucor Corp., America’s largest steel company. He gave GOP candidates and PACs $233,000. That included $35,000 to Trump Victory. DiMicco oversaw the transition’s work on the U.S trade representative’s post and was under consideration for the post.

Critics say there’s too much money in the system. Some big donors agree.

“I look forward to the day when campaigns are funded other than the way they are now,” says Craven, the Chapel Hill donor.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill