Leigh Brown, a well-known Realtor running for Congress in North Carolina, is suing the Federal Election Commission for ordering her to stop running business ads in advance of the May 14 primary.
“As Realtors we know exactly how competitive the real estate space is,” Brown told Inman. “If you’re not marketing non-stop, your phone’s not going to ring.”
Brown, the CEO of RE/MAX Leigh Brown & Associates, is one of 10 candidates running in a special election primary for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District after the result of last year’s election was not certified, due to allegations of illegal ballot handling.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) allegedly forced Brown, who has contributed to Inman and spoken at past Inman events, to stop running ads for her business, saying that they are violating the laws governing electioneering communication, which requires candidates to file specific reports to the FEC concerning all radio and television ads.
Any communication that refers to a clearly identified federal candidate and is publicly distributed by a television, radio, cable television or satellite television station for a fee within 30 days of a primary election is considered electioneering communication.
Brown told Inman that she originally went to the FEC to report the ads and make sure they would still be allowed. She has been running radio ads on the same conservative talk radio station for 13 years, she explained, and knowing it was a conservative channel, she decided to run it by the FEC.
She sent over transcripts and recordings of the ads and received a preliminary opinion that the ads would be fine, but a hearing with the FEC’s four-person leadership team was scheduled for April 11.
On April 11, Brown told Inman that the two Republicans and one independent on the commission agreed with the preliminary ruling that the ads were fine, but Ellen Weintraub, the FEC chairperson and a Democrat, ruled that the ads were electioneering communications and Brown’s voice was too recognizable. Weintraub was appointed to the FEC by President George W. Bush in 2003.
“It’s totally a partisan play,” Brown told Inman. “I’m a Republican woman and you have a Democrat woman blocking me. It’s not rocket science to know how things work in [Washington] D.C. right now.”
Brown explains, in the filing, that approximately 10 percent of her annual commission revenue is generated from such ads every year. Her business spends approximately $50,000 per year on radio ads.
Brown said it’s coming at a particularly difficult time for the business with spring break for area schools nearing.
“Every Realtor knows spring break week is when your phone volume picks up … this is when the season is hot,” Brown said. “It’s disproportionately harming my business.”
Brown said it’s also hurting the agents on her teams and the administrative staff at her brokerage. While she’s been campaigning she’s been sending clients to agents on her team.
“The agents who have chosen to be on my team and the administrative staff that I have hired, they’re being hurt too and they’re not even running for office,” Brown said.
The FEC’s decision comes at a time when the National Association of Realtors’ political arm, Realtors Political Action Committee (RPAC), is preparing a big spend for Brown in the crowded race. According to a report from the Charlotte Observer, RPAC is planning to spend $674,000 on ads at three North Carolina TV stations in support of Brown.
“The support coming in from the Realtors, unexpectedly, is just helping with the name recognition and also helps people understand that one of my primary focus points is to talk about housing and what housing means to every community,” Brown said.
RPAC had roughly $8 million cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period on February 28, and has spent approximately $619,500 in campaign contributions to candidates so far this year.
Through the first two months of the year, RPAC raised approximately $1.2 million, which means that money was still raised while Brown was an active volunteer with NAR, serving as the Realtor Party fundraising liaison. The Realtor Party is an advocacy wing of NAR that works to advance candidates and policies that support NAR’s housing goals.
Brown resigned from the role on March 13, according to NAR.
“Brown and the National Association of Realtors agreed it is necessary for her to separate her leadership role in the association from her efforts as a congressional candidate,” a NAR spokesperson told Inman last month.
NAR, at the time, also addressed whether or not they would support Brown’s candidacy by noting that it adheres to pre-established procedures for determining candidates to support in federal elections.
The FEC has not yet published data on Brown’s campaign as the reporting period has not yet passed.
Brown is running on a conservative, pro-President Donald Trump and anti-government regulation platform.
NAR did not respond to a request for comment on the Charlotte Observer’s report of its big spend in support of Brown.
UPDATE: Story updated with comment from Leigh Brown.