Countless Atlantans volunteered for Kasim Reed last fall, helping a second-place candidate overcome an imposing deficit to win the top job in city government.
But, in a tight nonpartisan race, partisan campaigning may have been the critical ingredient that vaulted Reed past Mary Norwood. The Georgia Democratic Party spent at least $165,000, campaign records show, to attack Reed’s opponent and contribute to an unprecedented 8 percent jump in voters for the Dec. 1 runoff, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.
Reed won by barely 700 votes after trailing four weeks earlier in the general election by more than 7,000. If not for that surge of Reed voters, Norwood would be Atlanta’s mayor.
As the party was writing checks for the turnout effort, campaign records show, tens of thousands of dollars flowed into party coffers from contributors who could not legally donate directly to Reed’s campaign — including the law firm of Roy Barnes, the former governor who is running to regain his old job.
State law is designed to prevent a single source with lots of cash from tipping an election with direct donations to a campaign. In municipal races, contributions are capped at $2,400, plus $1,200 if there’s a runoff.
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Political parties, though, are exempt from spending limits if they are supporting a party ticket or a group of named candidates, as long as they do not donate directly to the candidate. In the mayor’s race, adding a couple of names to the fine print allowed the Democrats to spend at least $57,000 on mailings to help Reed.
Two of those mailings characterized Norwood — a nonpartisan City Council member — as a closet Republican, and one linked her to conservative icons Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.
Common Cause Georgia, an advocacy group for campaign finance reform, described the Democrats’ tactics as “a blatant end run” on contribution limits and an intrusion into the nonpartisan process. Proponents contend nonpartisan elections help to elevate the public discourse above polarizing rhetoric and encourage voters to look beyond party labels.
“Overly zealous party politics is killing us, and we need to be reducing that noise, not seeking opportunities to have more of it,” Common Cause director Bill Bozarth said.
Reed, a former Democratic state legislator, said his campaign never asked the party for help. “I’m aware of the law and wanted to make sure we were running an independent campaign,” the mayor said in a recent interview.
Democratic party leaders say the law gave them every right to intervene.
Reed and the Democrats both hired the same veteran political operative to drive their get-out-the-vote efforts, showering her organization with nearly $150,000 in the weeks before the runoff, campaign records show.
And Georgia Democrats are not the only ones using such gambits. “That’s a technique we have lifted from the Republicans,” said Michael Jablonski, the party’s general counsel.
Still, the party’s involvement was “heartbreaking,” said Norwood, who describes herself as an independent.
It also alienated some Democrats, who say the party had no business intervening in a nonpartisan race.
“What I’m finding now is I can’t trust the party,” said Norwood supporter and self-styled diehard Democrat Janice Hall. “I’ve told the national party and the Georgia party I will never give them another red cent.”
Some critics also believe the party may have violated its bylaws, which prohibit endorsing one Democrat over another, by using similar tactics in two legislative primaries in July. Mailings appearing to originate with the party attacked Democratic candidate Graham Balch as a Republican and “Able” Mable Thomas as an opportunist and career politician.
“A person pays $400 to the Democratic Party of Georgia [to get on the ballot] ... and then you have to run against the Democratic Party of Georgia,” said a frustrated Thomas, a former Democratic legislator who lost by 349 votes.
Atlanta city elections are nonpartisan, but party leaders made it clear they wanted Atlanta’s next mayor to be a Democrat. Reed won six prior elections as a Democrat, while Norwood had voted in both GOP and Democratic primaries.
“When we have a Democrat running against someone who’s not a Democrat, that’s very easy to decide who to coordinate with,” said Eric Gray, the state Democratic party’s communications director.
To get people to the polls, party officials turned to Mitzi Bickers, former president of the Atlanta Board of Education. For voter turnout, “she is probably the most well-known and respected vendor” in Atlanta, said Matt Weyandt, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
The party paid Operation Get Out the Vote Inc., a nonprofit founded by Bickers in October, more than $56,000 in the two weeks before the Dec. 1 runoff. Campaign records show Reed’s campaign gave the firm an additional $94,500 for “GOTV outreach” and media expenses. The Democrats also paid a total of $51,000 to 169 canvassers on and preceding Election Day.
Party leaders said the turnout effort had two goals: re-energizing Barack Obama supporters who were first-time voters in 2008 and helping to elect Reed. “We were getting targeted voters who we believed were Kasim Reed voters,” Weyandt said.
Bickers said Operation GOTV was working to promote black turnout but not Reed in particular. Operation Get Out the Vote filed papers when it incorporated that barred it from political campaigning.
“We could not say specifically, vote for a candidate,” she said. “We could raise the awareness of the election.”
Now a $62,500-a-year management analyst in the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, Bickers had previously donated $3,000 to Reed’s campaign.
Bickers’ team primarily worked southwest Atlanta with sound trucks, robocalls and door-to-door canvassers, she said. She acknowledged higher turnout in southwest Atlanta most likely helped Reed.
“The hardest vote to turn out is generally the black vote,” said Bickers, who is black. “Black people generally vote (for) black candidates.”
Norwood and Reed finished as the top two vote-getters Nov. 3 but had to face each other in a Dec. 1 runoff since neither topped 50 percent. Reed won the runoff in southwest Atlanta, picking up a combined 5,800 more votes in Districts 4, 10 and 11 than in November, returns show.
Reed said hiring Bickers was a matter of protecting his campaign’s quarter-million-dollar investment in canvassing to find his strongest supporters.
“I identified 30,000 voters that were supportive of me,” Reed said. But without a strong get-out-the-vote effort, “there was no guarantee those people were going to vote for me.”
Tapping the maxed-out
Reed supporters who could give no more money to his campaign financed much of the Democrats’ turnout effort, an analysis of campaign records indicates.
In the nine days before the runoff, Reed backers gave the state party $89,000 — three-quarters of all contributions to the party in that period. The donations included $73,500 from businesses and individuals who were barred by state law from giving any more money to Reed’s runoff bid.
Those maxed-out donors included Barnes’ law firm, Marietta-based construction firm Matsco Inc., the Service Employees International Union and Reed campaign treasurer Larry Cooper.
Party officials declined to discuss their fundraising before the runoff but said it stayed within the law. Donations were solicited but not earmarked for any specific purpose, they said.
Barnes said the Democrats solicited his contribution. “The party called me, said we need $5,000, we’re going to support Kasim Reed,” Barnes said. There’s “nothing sinister,” he said, about the Democrats helping a candidate running without a party label. “Just because it’s a nonpartisan race does not mean parties are disqualified,” he said.
The Democrats could use that money for Reed without worrying about spending limits by simply including more than one candidate’s name on its appeals to voters.
Before the Nov. 3 general election, for instance, party-funded mailings attacked Norwood and urged voters — in smaller type — to back Reed, mayoral rival Lisa Borders and unopposed school board candidate Reuben McDaniel. Both referred to Norwood’s “real Republican record” and alleged her campaign was financed by “the same Republican money men who funded John McCain’s hate-filled campaign against Barack Obama.”
For the runoff, Reed and City Council candidates Clair Muller, Ceasar Mitchell, Amir Farokhi and Aaron Watson were among those named on the party’s campaign mailings.
“Everything that we did — canvassing, mailings, get-out-the-vote efforts — had elements of at least two of those candidates,” Gray said.
Common Cause Georgia says the party’s actions make a mockery of campaign donation limits.
“I’m OK if the parties truly want to advocate for a slate,” said Bozarth of Common Cause, “but putting two other candidates’ names in 5-point type on a mailer for one candidate is thumbing their nose at the law.”
Similar mailings attacked two candidates challenging legislative incumbents in the July 20 Democratic primary: Balch, an Atlanta schoolteacher who was vying for Sen. Vincent Fort’s seat, and Thomas, a former legislator running against Rep. Rashad Taylor.
Those mailings listed party headquarters as the return address, used the party’s nonprofit mailing permit and said “a project of the Democratic Party of Georgia” had paid for them.
The party spent $35,564 on the pro-Fort mailings, campaign disclosures show. Taylor estimated the mailings on his behalf cost about $25,000.
The Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate, and not the party itself, paid those expenses pursuant to their “incumbent protection” policies, party leaders said. The caucuses are part of the party for administrative purposes, they said, but operate independently.
The caucuses, they said, also are not bound by party bylaws, which “explicitly prohibit” Democratic committees and affiliates “from supporting a Democratic candidate who has opposition during a primary.”
“It is a huge pain for us because we, of course, hear from Able Mable or Graham Balch,” said Weyandt, the Democrats’ executive director. “It puts us in an awkward position.”
Jablonski says Democrats learned the techniques that allow them to spend so much from the Republican Party. The Georgia GOP reported spending $756,000 on multicandidate mailings in 2006.
Even if such mailings allow unlimited spending, that’s not why the Democrats do it, Jablonski said. The party wants to “build a bench” of candidates who might run for higher office by strengthening their name recognition outside their districts.
Gray, the party’s communications director, said the mailings helped to accomplish the main goal: electing Democrats.
“We chose what we thought would be successful,” Gray said. Given the outcome, “I would say what we did was exactly the way it should be done.”