Ethics Watch

Literature denouncing candidate Graham Balch greeted voters as they opened their mailboxes in recent weeks in Georgia’s 39th Senate District.

Voters were told Balch is a Republican, that he called Atlanta’s Grady High a “ghetto” school and deserved an “F” for his positions on education. Tactics like these are common, if not predictable, before a contested election.

The difference: Balch ran as a Democrat, and a state Democratic organization paid for the attack ads.

Incumbent Sen. Vincent Fort swamped Balch by a 2-1 margin in the July 20 primary. Balch now says he feels betrayed by party leaders whose bylaws prohibit endorsements of one Democrat over another.

“This is not helping our party be a stronger party,” Balch said. “The best person should be allowed to represent the Democratic Party.”Fort said Balch — and an independent committee that supports school vouchers —forced his hand by sending negative mailings about him.

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“I didn’t think that was a smart idea to have a unilateral armistice and let him tell lies about me,” Fort said. “I thought it was necessary to tell the truth about him.”

Fort and party officials say no bylaws were broken because the Senate Democratic Caucus, not the state Democratic Party, paid for the mailings. The caucus is legally a part of the party, officials say, but it operates independently.Campaign finance records filed with the State Ethics Commission make no such distinction, though. Party officials say the commission told them in 2007 to report the caucus’s spending on the party’s reports to avoid confusion.

So, the party’s July 8 disclosure itemized payments for three mailings in June with no mention of the caucus’s involvement. (The mailings’ fine print said the Senate Majority Fund, “a project of the Democratic Party of Georgia,” paid the costs, and they give the party’s headquarters as the return address. Again, the word “caucus” never appears.)

Regardless of who paid, statutory limits on campaign contributions still apply for spending on behalf of a single candidate. In a legislative primary, the limit is $2,400.

But the party may spend an unlimited amount to support a slate of candidates. In the Senate race, the party spent $35,000-plus on mailings backing a “slate” of Fort and Rep. Kathy Ashe.

Not only was Ashe unchallenged in her race, she was running for re-election to the House, not the Senate.

So why was the Senate Majority Fund promoting an unopposed House member? If you think the Democrats were trying to sneak around contribution limits, you’re wrong, said Michael Jablonski, the party’s general counsel.The Democrats are advertising candidates outside their districts to build name recognition for those who might run for higher office one day, Jablonski said.

“We want people in South Georgia to hear the name Kathy Ashe so if she decided to run statewide, they would already have heard the name,” he said. Lifting the limit on campaign contributions, he agreed, is a side-benefit.

Sen. Robert Brown of Macon, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the caucus stepped up for Fort as part of an “incumbent protection” policy adopted after the GOP took control of the Senate in 2003.

“In selected races where we determine there may be some chance we might lose a member, we intervene,” he said.

This year, that meant protecting incumbent senators not just from Republicans, but from fellow

Democrats as well. The caucus also helped Sens. Donzella James and Valencia Seay, who each defeated two Democratic opponents last month, with technical assistance and campaign appearances, Brown said.

To Balch, regardless of the funding source, voters who received the mailings about him thought the Democratic Party was officially backing Fort in the primary.

“They violated their bylaws to help an incumbent because they have an incumbent protection policy,” he said. “Americans don’t want an incumbent protection policy. Americans want democracy.”

Jim Walls, retired investigations editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, runs the watchdog news Web site atlantaunfiltered.com.

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