For a case that revolves around Mike Nifong’s desperate attempt to retain his position as elected district attorney, how Nifong funded his primary campaign has received surprisingly little attention.
The recently filed campaign finance report for the period ending June 30 provides some tantalizing clues about the relationship between the district attorney’s political needs and how he handled the lacrosse case. The most important finding: as of late February, donations to the Nifong campaign had all but dried up. His donors, it seemed, had concluded he couldn’t win. Nifong’s bid for a full term was kept alive only by nearly $30,000 in loans from the candidate himself.
It is hardly unusual in politics, of course, for candidates to loan personal funds to their campaigns—often (as in races for the U.S. Senate) in sums far greater than occurred in Durham last spring. But Nifong’s behavior departed from the political norm in three critical respects:
- First, the personal loans coincided with his hitting a brick wall in fundraising. The loans thus identified a point when Nifong’s campaign, apparently having been written off by the city’s legal elite, hit the panic button.
- Second, Nifong had no chance of recouping his money if he lost the primary. In sharp contrast to the fundraising tactics of most of his fellow district attorneys, Nifong’s donors were almost exclusively local lawyers, whose professional responsibilities required maintaining good relations with the D.A.’s office. These figures could hardly give money to a vanquished Nifong knowing that Freda Black was awaiting installation as
’s next district attorney. Durham County
- Third, from all accounts, Nifong is not peronally wealthy. He therefore could ill afford to lose the nearly $30,000 he loaned his campaign.
Among the few case-related items no one disputes: Mike Nifong harbored an intense personal and professional dislike for Freda Black. Between 2000 and 2005, he was showing signs of emotional instability as he spent his days negotiating traffic tickets: one traffic court attorney recalled, “Working with Mike, you never knew from one day or the other who you’d be dealing with. He would curse you, scream at you, call you names over nothing.” Black, though hardly a paragon of ethics herself, received national attention in the successful murder prosecution of novelist and former mayoral candidate Michael Peterson.
Governor Mike Easley rescued Nifong’s career by appointing him interim district attorney in 2005; within a week, the new D.A. demanded Black’s resignation. But Black was poised to overturn Easley’s action in the May 2006 primary, where she outdistanced Nifong in both name recognition and cash-on-hand. She also would be the sole woman running against two males in an electorate that’s 57% female.
At the turn of the year, Nifong launched a major fundraising drive. Between January 1 and February 19, he took in just over $20,000— $14,950 in itemized contributions (those over $100), and around $5,850 in donations of less than $100.* During the same time period, Black raised $14,748. Nifong had made himself competitive in the money race.
The source of Nifong’s donations, however, deviated from the norm for
Between January 1 and February 19, 83.6 percent of Nifong’s itemized contributions, or $12,500, came from local attorneys. This pattern differed markedly from that of D.A.’s in other contested races. In the first quarter of 2006, 19 incumbent North Carolina district attorneys raised more than $1,000. Of those 19, only 4 raised more than 36 percent of their funds from lawyers. Only two (Joel Brewer and Doug Henderson) of those four raised anything like Nifong’s percentage.
Such a fundraising strategy is risky: no private-practice lawyer wants to be remembered as a major donor to the candidate the current D.A. defeated to win her office. To continue to attract contributions, then, Nifong had to be perceived as having a chance to win.
But the campaign finance reports suggest that sometime in mid-February,
Between February 20 and April 1, Black outraised Nifong by a margin of greater than 4-to-1. As his fellow lawyers abandoned him, Nifong could have thrown in the towel. Instead, needing to keep pace, he loaned his campaign $6,601.
It was in this atmosphere—a campaign whose fundraising sources had evaporated, kept afloat by the candidate's limited personal wealth—that Nifong made three fateful decisions regarding the lacrosse case:
- On March 24, when the court granted his DNA motion, he effectively made himself lead investigator on the case.
- On March 27, when he started his barrage of interviews, he effectively made himself the Police Department’s press secretary in violation of state bar ethics guidelines.
- On March 31, when he ordered the police to violate their own procedures for the photo lineup, he effectively made himself a legal pariah.
Nifong’s publicity barrage, accompanied by his decision to deliberately inflame racial tensions (as when, on March 29, he speciously denied knowing that the second dancer had made the 911 call), brought new life to his campaign. He especially increased his popular support in the African-American community, which was his only chance of defeating Black.
Demagogues rarely attract financial support from the elites, however, and Nifong was no exception. Furthermore, his mockery of
So, once again, Nifong went to his bank account. This time, he authorized a massive loan: $22,388, which would keep the campaign solvent until the primary.
All told, 79.5 percent of the campaign’s fundraising in the final 10 weeks before the May 2 primary came out of Nifong’s pocket. By contrast, campaign finance reports show that only two other North Carolina D.A.’s loaned their campaigns any amount during this time period; both loaned $3,000 or less.
Personal loans to a candidate’s campaign can be repaid at a later stage, provided the candidate can raise the funds from others. But, of course, in a race for D.A. where the candidate’s fundraising base is local lawyers, the loser has no chance of recouping loan moneys. And in this particular race, especially after the tumultuous April 11 forum at NCCU made clear that Nifong would receive the lion’s share of the black vote only if he sought indictments before the primary, the district attorney’s political, financial, and personal interests appeared to clash with his duty to serve as Durham County’s minister of justice.
We all know how the story ended: Nifong obtained indictments, including one against Reade Seligmann. Days later, Seligmann produced evidence, which the district attorney had violated state ethics guidelines by refusing even to consider, showing he was demonstrably innocent. Regardless, Nifong edged Black in the primary by just under 900 votes, scoring well among African-American voters. In the following weeks, he secured around $3,000 to begin repaying the $28,989 in campaign loans to himself. His campaign finance report for July through September has been filed but hasn't yet been posted by the Board of Elections.
A cynic could argue that, in mid-April, Mike Nifong had 28,989 reasons to seek indictments against Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty before the primary. The full story, of course, isn’t that simple. But the campaign finance report illuminates the severe financial and political pressures bearing down upon the district attorney at the very time he made a series of ethically and procedurally dubious decisions in the lacrosse investigation. Only the most naïve observer would fail to see some connection between these pressures and the choices that Nifong made.
*--Unlike Black’s campaign, Nifong’s did not record the date of incoming unitemized donations. The figure used in the post, therefore, is an estimate. The campaign finance report shows that between 1-1 and 3-31, Nifong raised 88.9% of his itemized contributions between 1-1 and 2-19. I reached the figure of $5850 by calculating 88.9% of Nifong’s total for unitemized donations for the three-month period. Again, I recognize this is an estimate.