Politics & Government

Rep. Robert Pittenger, challenger Mark Harris target character in new ads

The Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte is challenging incumbent US Rep. Robert Pittenger for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district.
The Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte is challenging incumbent US Rep. Robert Pittenger for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Hoping to raise character questions about U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, the Rev. Mark Harris refers for the first time in a new digital ad campaign to an ongoing FBI investigation of the congressman’s former real estate company.

Pittenger, meanwhile, accuses Harris in a new TV ad of being a closet liberal who is lying about Pittenger’s record in Washington.

The back-and-forth attacks come with just two weeks to go before voters in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District decide who will get the Republican nomination for the seat now held by Pittenger. The Charlotte-based businessman is running for a third term.

Besides Harris, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte, Pittenger is also being challenged by Todd Johnson, a former Union County commissioner. The recently redrawn district now stretches from south Mecklenburg into Bladen County. With no runoff, the GOP candidate who gets the most votes on June 7 will win the nomination and face Democrat Christian Cano in November.

In Harris’ digital ad, which clocks in at one minute and 15 seconds, he talks about how his father, a decorated World War II veteran, taught him “the value of integrity, the value of your word meaning something, the value of hard work and sacrifice.”

After speaking of his own character and “lifetime of serving people,” Harris alleges that Pittenger has become a captive of special interests. Then, with a picture of the FBI seal appearing on screen, Harris adds: “I don’t have an FBI investigation ongoing.”

Federal investigators are looking into personal loans and contributions Pittenger made to his 2012 congressional campaign. The FBI and IRS are examining whether he improperly transferred the money from Pittenger Land Investments, his former real estate company.

Pittenger has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, Ken Bell, has said that he has not seen anything that “even suggests criminal activity” by his client and that he hopes authorities “act quickly and publicly to absolve” the congressman. Earlier this month, investors approved a settlement agreement that will bring new management to land deals arranged by Pittenger’s former company.

Paul Shumaker, chief strategist for the Pittenger campaign, said he views Harris’ new ad as “damage repair. ... He started out running a campaign based on attacking others. Now that his campaign has been called into question, he feels the need to defend himself.”

Pittenger’s new ad, appearing on cable TV stations in Charlotte and Fayetteville, accuses Harris of making “false attacks” on the congressman. The attacks, the ad alleges, “are to hide Harris’ record” of support for amnesty for immigrants here illegally and opposition to “new funding for our troops.” The ad pairs black-and-white photos of Harris and Democratic President Barack Obama.

The 30-second ad then says it’s Pittenger, shown in color, who has fought Obama’s agenda by voting several times to defund Planned Parenthood and opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

New TV ad released by Robert Pittenger's campaign charges U.S. Congress Republican primary opponent Mark Harris with "false attacks."

Pittenger’s campaign bases its charge that Harris supports amnesty on a 2011 resolution before the Southern Baptist Convention that called for secured borders first and then “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” The allegation that Harris was against new funds for troops is based on Harris’ opposition to an omnibus budget bill that included $600 billion for the Pentagon.

“Complete lies,” Harris campaign spokesman Mark Knoop said about the Pittenger ad’s portrayal of Harris’ issue stands. “His latest false attack proves that Congressman Pittenger is running scared and Mark Harris’ message of standing up to the political elite in Washington, D.C., is resonating with voters across the district.”

Knoop said Harris made it clear during the debate on the Southern Baptist Convention resolution that he did not support amnesty. Knoop said Harris indicated he would have voted against the omnibus bill because it continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood.