Politics & Government

Why Sue Myrick dumped Robert Pittenger to back his opponent

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Former U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick is doing all she can these days to help defeat Congressman Robert Pittenger – a fellow conservative Republican and one-time supporter and ally who succeeded her in Washington four years ago.

Myrick, a former Charlotte mayor who later represented North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District for 18 years, is backing the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte. He’s one of two candidates challenging Pittenger for the GOP nomination in a 9th district whose boundaries were dramatically redrawn by the legislature this year.

With less than a week before voters go to the polls on Tuesday, Myrick has been busy promoting Harris as someone who would “restore honor and integrity to the office” – a subtle but unmistakeable dig at Pittenger, whose former real estate company is under investigation by the FBI and IRS.

Last Friday, Myrick, now 74, headlined a Harris fundraiser at Cedar Wood Country Club in south Charlotte. The Harris campaign has sent newspapers in the district an op-ed column she wrote explaining her endorsement. And starting Wednesday, automated phone calls that Myrick recorded began ringing up likely Republican voters in the 9th, which now stretches from south Mecklenburg County east to Bladen County.

In these so-called “robocalls,” Myrick dismisses charges – made in a recent Pittenger ad – that Harris backs amnesty for immigrants here illegally and does not support more funds for the U.S. military.

Then she adds: “We must not give in to lies and dirty campaign tricks. Mark Harris is a man of unquestionable character, integrity and conservative principles.”

Pittenger, who was once a top donor to Myrick’s campaigns, struck back Wednesday with a statement that questioned her involvement in what’s become a heated race. In the emailed statement, Pittenger pointed out Myrick now lives “on a resort island out of state” and has worked as a lobbyist since giving up her congressional seat.

Pittenger, 67, also mentioned that he has the endorsement of former Gov. Jim Martin, who also served as a 9th District congressman and still lives in North Carolina.

“I am grateful for Sue Myrick’s years of service to Charlotte and the Ninth Congressional District,” Pittenger said in his statement. “Since retiring from public office, Ms. Myrick has begun work as a Washington lobbyist and now lives on a resort island out of state. In contrast, I am endorsed by retired Governor Jim Martin, who still lives in our community and remains actively engaged in public service.”

In recent years, Myrick has worked as a paid lobbyist for the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, a trade group that wants to get rid of shoe tariffs, and for the Inspiration Network, a Christian broadcaster based in Indian Land, S.C. Myrick lives in South Carolina near Charleston, according to a Harris campaign spokesman.

The Pittenger campaign also emailed from Martin a statement in which the former governor said Pittenger’s “integrity, record of achievement and experience validate our commitment” to re-elect him.

Myrick was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

‘Man of high character’

Myrick and Pittenger were once such close allies that she publicly defended him – and vouched for his character – when he was in the N.C. Senate in 2004.

At the time, then-House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan had made headlines with his charge that Pittenger tried to pay him off with a $500 campaign contribution in exchange for his help in getting Pittenger into a better Senate district.

Pittenger, who ended up being placed in a district with another Republican, denied at the time having any conversation about districts with Morgan.

In a letter to the editor that ran in the Observer on Jan. 18, 2004, Myrick came to Pittenger’s defense with words of high praise.

“I have known Robert Pittenger for 15 years,” then-Congresswoman Myrick wrote from Washington. “He is a man of high character. When Robert takes a position on an issue, his only motivation is helping the people of North Carolina as a public servant. I appreciate his serving the Charlotte area in the N.C. Senate, and I hate to see a good man’s name tarnished.”

The Myrick-Pittenger break-up came three years later. And it was just as public: The news broke in a 2007 Observer story that began this way:

“In a rare public rebuff, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick Tuesday severed ties with fellow Charlotte Republican and longtime supporter Robert Pittenger. Myrick told Pittenger, a state senator, that she was kicking him off her congressional finance committee and asked him to remove her picture from a Web site (for a foundation he’d started).”

The spat erupted after months of speculation over Myrick’s future. She had toyed with the idea of running for governor in 2008, but had announced in 2006 that she would not run. Some wondered at the time whether Myrick, then 65, might nevertheless retire from Congress in 2008.

In a letter to Pittenger, which was quoted in the Observer, Myrick said that she had heard “from numerous sources” that Pittenger was spreading the word that the two of them had “cut a deal” where Myrick would run for governor and endorse Pittenger for her congressional seat.

“I am not going to run for governor and I am not going to support you for Congress,” Myrick said in her letter to Pittenger. She also announced she would run for re-election to Congress in 2008.

At the time, Pittenger blamed the incident on a Myrick aide with a “twisted attitude” and ambitions of his own to succeed Myrick.

“I deeply regret that your sources have disseminated inaccurate information,” Pittenger wrote back to Myrick, and quoted comments in another recent Observer article in which he described himself as “the No. 1 fan of Sue Myrick.”

In denying that he had made any deals or claims that Myrick would endorse him for Congress, Pittenger even told the Observer that he would offer to take a lie detector test or “swear on a stack of Bibles.”

Backing his challengers

When Myrick announced in 2012 that she would not run for a 10th term, she had a preferred successor in mind.

In that year’s Republican primary, she endorsed not Pittenger, but Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Pendergraph, a longtime Myrick ally.

Pendergraph, a former Mecklenburg County sheriff, made it into a GOP runoff with Pittenger.

It was a rough campaign, with a barrage of personal attacks on TV and in the mail. Pittenger accused Pendergraph, a former Democrat, of a conflict for taking extra vacation days when he stepped down as sheriff. Pendergraph also went after Pittenger, saying he broke the law by voting on a bill involving land he owned in 2003. He also accused Pittenger of buying the election.

In the end, Pittenger won the nomination, out-spending Pendergraph 7-1. Pittenger gave his campaign more than $2.1 million. No House candidate in the country spent more of his own money that year.

By 2016, when Pittenger was gearing up to run for a third term, federal investigators were looking into personal loans and contributions Pittenger made to that first campaign in 2012. The FBI and IRS have been examining whether Pittenger improperly transferred the money from Pittenger Land Investments, his former real estate firm.

Pittenger has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

But in January of this year, Myrick appeared to take a shot at Pittenger’s character when she endorsed George Rouco – a lawyer and former CIA agent who had announced he would be challenging Pittenger in the GOP primary.

In a statement, Myrick said that people were losing their faith in institutions, especially Congress. “The way to reverse this,” she said, “is to elect leaders with integrity and a desire to serve the people.”

In February, a federal court decision caused the N.C. legislature to redraw most of the state’s congressional districts. Rouco no longer lived in the 9th district, so he declared his candidacy for the congressional seat in the 13th district.

When Harris announced that he would run, Myrick switched her endorsement to him. Also challenging Pittenger in Tuesday’s Republican primary is former Union County commissioner Todd Johnson.

On Wednesday, before he released his own statement, Pittenger declined to comment on how his once-robust political alliance with Myrick had turned into a toxic feud.

“I’m not going to get into that,” he said. “What she does is her business. I’m OK with what she does. America is a great country.”