2020 Election

NC Dem Takes Millions From Coronavirus Program He Criticized

Cunningham's trash firm took $1 to $2 million from 'unacceptable' Trump program

Cal Cunningham / YouTube Screenshot

North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham's company collected up to $2 million in taxpayer dollars in coronavirus relief even as the candidate said that the Paycheck Protection Program "harms communities."

WasteZero, a Raleigh-based environmentalist trash service, obtained between $1 and $2 million in PPP funding on May 3, data released by the Small Business Administration on Monday show. Cunningham earned about $400,000 in 2019 in his role as the company's general counsel and vice president. He has repeatedly criticized the federal program, which aims to support small businesses struggling with coronavirus shutdowns. Just two months after Senate Democrats blocked a Republican effort to bankroll the depleting fund in April, Cunningham called the program "unacceptable," saying it "harms communities."

"For PPP loans to have ‘generally missed the industries and areas most heavily impacted by COVID-19' is unacceptable," he said in a tweet. "Leaving behind small businesses—and disproportionately those that are Black- and Latino-owned—harms communities."

The former state legislator "supports [WasteZero's] outreach to municipal and state leaders," according to an archive of the company's website. Cunningham also has stock options and a convertible note of up to $50,000 tied to the company, according to his candidate financial report. Cunningham told reporters that he was still working for the company in February. He has since been removed from WasteZero's website and the company does not publicly acknowledge any legal representation on its site. Neither Cunningham nor WasteZero responded to requests for comment about PPP or the candidate's role in the company.

Cunningham's lucrative legal career has helped propel his political career. He launched his Senate bid in 2019 by loaning his campaign $200,000 before winning the Democratic primary in March with 57 percent of the vote. Cunningham has also criticized the Trump administration for "refusing to disclose which companies are getting the money."

"Many small businesses, especially minority-owned businesses, are still waiting to receive funds, while the PPP ‘sent money to companies that did not critically need financial aid,'" he said in a June press release.

Some conservative activists said that Cunningham is trying to have it both ways. Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said that the wealthy Democrat is out of touch with voters and the suffering that small businesses have experienced during the pandemic.

"This is just more hypocrisy from the left. Cunningham obviously knew that the company he is involved in would benefit from this stimulus package, which passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support," Schilling said. "North Carolina voters are going to see right through this."

WasteZero claims to have used the loan to retain 115 jobs. Businesses are required to have fewer than 500 employees in order to qualify for PPP funds, and more than 122,000 loans were issued in the state as of June 30, totaling more than $12.4 billion. The waste elimination industry was deemed essential in North Carolina's shutdown order.

Cunningham is running to unseat incumbent senator Thom Tillis (R., N.C.). The North Carolina Republican has praised the PPP and co-introduced legislation in July to help small businesses see loans of $150,000 or less forgiven.

"The Paycheck Protection Program played a crucial role in supporting small businesses and saving jobs for hardworking North Carolinians," Tillis said in a statement. "I am proud to co-introduce this bipartisan legislation that will help small businesses save thousands of dollars by allowing forgiveness for their PPP loan and use those funds to help restart our economy."

Cunningham will face Tillis in November. He was backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in October 2019 and has benefited from more than $9.4 million in spending from outside groups supporting his candidacy. According to his campaign, the Democrat raised $7.4 million in the second quarter of 2020 and holds $6.6 million cash on hand. Tillis has not yet reported his second-quarter fundraising numbers and held nearly $6.5 million on hand as of March 31. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently rates the race a "toss up."