The following story was written by Leighton Rowell, a University of Georgia student part of The Georgia News Lab, which trains students in investigative journalism and partners with the AJC and WSB-TV to showcase their work.
Newly elected State Rep. Sheri Smallwood Gilligan, R-Cumming, accepted funding from two influential conservative advocacy groups before her July election to a suburban Atlanta House seat, despite vowing to reject campaign contributions from "special interests."
In campaigning for office, Gilligan, the former Forsyth County Tea Party chair, repeatedly criticized the influence of such groups on her opponents and government in general, emphasizing a need for “independent, conservative leadership that is not beholden to special interests.”
In a June 2 interview with the Forsyth Herald, Gilligan made her position clear.
“I am not accepting donations from any special interests or corporations because when I cast my first vote, I do not want to owe anyone anything except the voters who sent me to represent them,” she said.
Yet on July 7, one week before the July 14 runoff election for the District 24 seat, Gilligan accepted $500 contributions from two interest groups: The American Federation for Children and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Asked about the donations, Gilligan told the AJC the two groups contributed because they appreciated her support for small businesses and school choice.
“These two groups reached out to me and I did not see it as special interests,” Gilligan said in the interview. “I want a level playing field for all things and I thought, you know, it’s just another way of getting my message out. So maybe I was wrong, but that’s the way I looked at it.”
Both organizations are conservative lobbying groups based in the Washington area and are a large lobbying presence at the Georgia Capitol. AFC is a member of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and promotes school privatization as well as charter schools. NFIB was the lead plaintiff against the Affordable Care Act in the 2012 Supreme Court case.
Gilligan, a Navy Reserve vet and former U.S. intelligence analyst turned technical college instructor, said she had not considered informing voters about the two contributions, which accounted for about 3 percent of the $30,240 that she raised overall.
“I had not even thought about it as a potential issue,” Gilligan said. “Like I said, the people who elected me here in Forsyth County know where I stand on all of these issues.”
The contributions to Gilligan’s campaign were disclosed on July 10, four days before the runoff. Seth Weathers, political consultant for Gilligan’s opponent in the special election David Van Sant, told the AJC that Van Sant’s campaign was aware of the contributions.
Weathers said he views AFC and NFIB as special interest groups.
“Maybe they were special interests that she happens to agree with,” he said. “That doesn’t make it any less of a special interest group.”
Weathers said Gilligan’s acceptance of the contributions seems to him like “politics as usual.”
“She maybe wasn’t as different as she tried to portray she was in the campaign,” Weathers said.
Leighton Rowell, a senior at the University of Georgia, is a student in the Georgia News Lab, a collaboration among Georgia’s leading journalism programs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. This story resulted from an analysis of Rep. Gilligan’s campaign records that Rowell conducted as part of a News Lab investigation.
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