Emerging force in Georgia politics likes to needle ruling party

Rarely has a no-comment generated such impassioned response.

After Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said he wouldn’t chime in on a left-leaning group’s push to get him to support an integrated prom in rural Georgia — calling the prodding a “silly publicity stunt” — the stance took on a life of its own.

Soon, celebrities were tweeting their outrage, progressive blogs were posting updates and major news outlets were weighing in. Most ignored the fact that students had raised enough money for the dance in question days before the issue was raised.

Behind the outcry was a group called Better Georgia, a start-up force in state politics that aims to get under the skin of conservatives. The group’s staffers, who refer to themselves as political troublemakers, illuminate questionable decisions by GOP powerbrokers through an unabashedly liberal prism.

“We’re not afraid to ruffle some feathers,” said Don Weigel, the organization’s political director. “And these folks need their feathers ruffled.”

The needling has worked. Since its start in late 2011, critics have blasted the group as muckrakers who delight in manufacturing controversies that do little to live up to the group’s name.

State Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, contends the group thrives on the “gotcha moment” that fails to advance political discourse. And Deal spokesman Brian Robinson, a frequent target, calls it a “leftist front group for the state Democratic Party.” After the prom episode, he said, “Better Georgia did everything they could to prove me right.”

The group was founded by Bryan Long, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN reporter who left a public relations job to start the outfit, an affiliate of the ProgressNow network.

Few in Georgia politics had heard of Long or his group in January 2012 when he spent a fifth of his $10,000 budget on a full-page attack ad in Deal’s hometown newspaper, the Gainesville Times. The ad, placed the same day as Deal’s second State of the State speech, earned TV and Internet coverage — and a rebuke from the governor’s office that gave Better Georgia a fresh round of coverage.

“No one knew what Better Georgia was,” Long said. “Because of that, people started listening to me. Was it huge? Did we drastically change the course of Georgia on that day? The jury is still out on that, but people started listening.”

And more money came in. Enough to pay Long and Weigel, who has worked for long-shot candidates in New York, Colorado and Alabama as well as for House Democrats in Georgia. The group exists outside the aegis of the state Democratic party, and donors and finances are kept secret. Supporters include former Gov. Roy Barnes and Billy Hall, the chief executive of NewFields, an environmental consulting firm.

“They serve a great purpose,” said Barnes, a Democrat whose comeback bid was halted by Deal in 2010. “The print media has cut back on its investigative reporting because of market conditions, and Better Georgia is one of the few groups out there which reports on political abuses.”

These days, Long and Weigel work in a small office on the 20th floor of a Midtown tower in space borrowed from Hall's company. They rely on about a dozen volunteers who file paperwork, stuff envelopes and make the calls that help keep the operation running.

Long and Weigel spend part of their days mining social media to try to determine the next gaffe or issue to pounce on. Theirs is a metrics-based outfit driven by how many “likes” it scores on Facebook, shares it generates on social media and hits it lands on blogs and mainstream sites.

The two dispatch a steady stream of attacks against Republicans and — on rare occasion — Democrats. Often, they barely register a ripple in cyberspace. But Democrats and, privately, some Republicans, say the group is leaving an imprint on Georgia politics. Often, they cite the Chip Rogers episode as an example.

Rogers was the Senate majority leader when Better Georgia managed to shoot video of an October statehouse meeting he organized about an alleged United Nations conspiracy known as Agenda 21.

The 52-minute recording of a seminar leader claiming that the U.N. meant to brainwash followers and deprive Americans of their property rights notched thousands of views. Rogers soon opted against running for another term as a Senate leader, and in December Deal appointed him to a well-paying post at Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“I don’t know if I’d make the same decisions that they do,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat who has benefited from Better Georgia’s attacks. “But they’re definitely a part of the equation.”

Long’s media strategy often is to appeal to bloggers and liberal websites outside of Georgia, then wait for local reporters to follow. That’s the tactic the organization used when students in Wilcox County sought to end the tradition of segregated proms in their community.

On April 10, Better Georgia pushed Deal and lawmakers to offer support for the students and to dip into their campaign coffers to help fund the event. The move came five days after the students announced they had raised enough money for their dance.

Liberal blogs soon picked up the thread. When asked about it by a Macon TV reporter, Robinson, Deal’s spokesman, said “we’re not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt.”

Better Georgia soon sent out a release claiming Deal wouldn’t “take sides” on the event, eliciting a new round of media attention that lit up blogs and earned tweets from several celebrities. It also infuriated Deal’s aides, who correctly pointed out that his office had opted not to respond to Better Georgia’s prodding, but never said they weren’t taking sides.

Critics say the politicization of the prom is the latest of Better Georgia’s questionable tactics.

“They got their headline. But purposely setting out to embarrass the state of Georgia and trying to make something what it isn’t doesn’t make Georgia better,” said Charlie Harper, editor of Peach Pundit, an influential political blog with a conservative tilt. “They should be focused on making Georgia better and not just stunts.”

Days later, Deal met with reporters and, sure enough, he was asked his stance on the rural county’s prom. The governor said school events should never bar attendees based on race, but that he’s wary of getting involved in local issues.

“I think that people understand that some of these are just local issues and private issues and not something that the state government needs to have its finger involved in,” Deal said.

For Long, though, it was more ammunition for a fresh broadside against the governor, accusing him of viewing “civil rights and equality” as a local issue.

Back at his Midtown office, Long warned there are more attacks to come, thanks partly to the dozens of tips he receives each month. He said he’s not so naive that he thinks the headlines they generate will better Georgia, as his group promises. But, he said, they can help carve out a beachhead for what he sees as a coming Democratic tide.

“All we’re trying to see is growth at this point,” Long said. “Ultimately, we want to turn that to victories on policies and in the ballot box.”