Wake County District Attorney Watch: Boz Zellinger Announces

Benjamin Oren Zellinger, known around the courthouse by his initials as Boz, was rumored to be considering a run for District Attorney as a Democrat. It’s not a rumor. He is running, and has filed the necessary paperwork, set up a Facebook page, and announced significant campaign contributions, reported by the News & Observer.

The campaign wrote: “At the end of day two of the Boz Zellinger Campaign for District Attorney, we have collected $77,701 for our campaign fund. Thanks to the generosity of our many donors we have surged to the fundraising lead.” (More about the contributions below but TL;DR: $70,000 of the $77,000 announced comes from the candidate and his immediate and extended family. Another $5,000 comes from Mr. Zellinger’s former boss, Brad Miller.  Total number of contributors other than the candidate, his family, and family friends? 12 people contributing a combined total of $2,701. )

Zellinger, while young, is not a stranger to politics. He worked for two years in the office of Brad Miller, the five term liberal Democratic Congressman who was succeeded by Republican George Holding (the former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina) after Miller announced he would not run for re-election in 2012. But there is a difference between being around politics, and being involved in a campaign. I’m not sure how much campaign experience Boz has, but Lorrin Freeman has run and won two county-wide elections.

Zellinger graduated from UNC Law School in 2007, and got his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 2002. In spite of his Big Ten sympathies, he is born and bred in Raleigh and has a strong support system in the community.

Zellinger has risen quickly in Colon Willoughby’s office. In 2011, he was one of three prosecutors, along with First Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings, who prosecuted Brad Cooper for first degree murder in the death of his wife Nancy Cooper. That trial was one of the longest in Wake County’s history. The Court of Appeals overturned the conviction this past September, citing errors that undermined the fairness of the trial. The State of North Carolina has appealed the matter to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Zellinger was also involved in the prosecution and sentencing of James Crouch, a DWI lawyer in Raleigh convicted of obstruction of justice and altering court documents in a backdating scheme that brought down a sitting District Court Judge.

And Zellinger has been involved in the prosecution of Grant Hayes, who was convicted of first degree murder. Zellinger’s involvement in these cases, especially the Crouch sentencing, signaled to some at the courthouse that he could be a potential contender as an appointed candidate for District Attorney, especially if Colon Willoughby had resigned mid-term before the end of the Bev Perdue administration. Had that occurred, Zellinger would’ve run this year as an incumbent, a much easier road to his own elected term as District Attorney.

These cases, and his position as an assistant district attorney on the Special Victims Unit team (where he handles child abuse and sex-related offenses), give Zellinger the ability to argue that he is a tough-on-crime Democrat who has been involved in handling some of the most difficult cases in the county. And, certainly, while voters may consider age a factor, remember that Colon Willoughby was just seven years out of law school when he ran for and beat the incumbent in 1986.

Campaign Filings and Website

Zellinger registered his domain name www.BOZForDA.com on January 14, 2014. The domain name was privately registered, so it’s unclear which political consultancy has been hired by Zellinger to manage his campaign. His treasurer is Julie Tew, niece to Brad Miller and a supporter of the Junior League of Raleigh.

Zellinger’s Facebook page says the campaign has raised $77,701, which is an impressive amount, and announces that Brad Miller supports Zellinger. Big numbers can show impressive organizational ability. Or simply that the candidate or his family is personally wealthy. Since North Carolina permits unlimited campaign contributions by the candidate and his immediate family, that number could be inflated.

Let’s look at the campaign filings (pdf): While $77,701 sounds like a big number, Boz Zellinger himself as contributed $50,043 of the money as an “in kind” contribution for $43 for the PO Box rented for the campaign and $50,000 in a no-interest loan from Zellinger to his campaign. That leaves a total of about $27,000 contributed by other people: $5,000 from Brad Miller, $10,000 from the husband and wife Michael and Sandra Zellinger of Raleigh, and $10,000 from extended family Jeffrey and Marsha Perelman, a husband and wife from a suburb of Philadelphia who are richer than you and me, but not as rich as billionaire brother Ronald Perelman. (Aside: While Ronald Perelman has contributed in past elections to Democrats Bev Perdue and Richard Moore, neither Jeffrey and Marsha Perelman nor Michael and Sandra Zellinger have, at least according to my search of campaign finance records, contributed to other state races in North Carolina. The Perelmans have a litigious and complicated history. Ronald Perelman was born in Greensboro, the son of Raymond and Faith Perelman. Raymond later sued Jeffrey Perelman, Ronald’s brother.)

On the one hand, $5,000 from Brad Miller and $70,000 from yourself and your family and their friends doesn’t make the $77,701 raised a sign of broad based support in the community. On the other hand, exceptionally rich people often know other exceptionally rich people who can make getting to the $250,000 needed run an effective campaign for DA very easy.

Can He Beat Freeman in the Primary?

Zellinger has a lot of favorable qualities (in addition to his ability to bring exceptionally large amounts of cash to the table) in a candidate, but the problem is that he is facing a likeable woman from an establishment Democratic Party family with a track-record as a prosecutor and as a two term Clerk of Court. Lorrin Freeman will be able to use her age, her experience, and her management credentials. After all, the elected District Attorney manages a multi-million dollar budget, and dozens of employees, something that Freeman has already shown she can do as Clerk of Court.

The question is going to be whether Zellinger can translate his money into votes in a Democratic primary where an establishment candidate like Lorrin Freeman will have the party behind her.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.