Reed, business community aim money at Atlanta races

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and elite businesspeople are behind a new independent committee planning six-figure spending to influence the outcome of the upcoming citywide school board and city council elections.

The group, Continue Atlanta’s Progress, confirmed in a statement released exclusively to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this week that it will use its money to support candidates it’s endorsing. The group’s main objective is improving Atlanta Public Schools.

“The future of our city is directly tied to the effectiveness of the Atlanta Public Schools,” said committee chairman Robert Highsmith earlier this week. “To attract new businesses and new residents, Atlanta must boast one of the nation’s best school systems. To make that happen, we intend to support strong candidates for the local school board.”

The committee has raised $182,500 since Oct. 10, with $92,500 raised in the past two days alone, according to records filed Friday with the state ethics commission. So far, Reed is the group’s largest donor, giving $75,000 from his campaign funds and funding $9,500 in polling research. The group is likely to continue receiving donations in the final days leading up to the election.

CAP is an independent expenditure committee that can raise and spend unlimited funds on preferred candidates’ races, provided it does not coordinate with any campaign on how those dollars are used.

Jeff Dickerson, spokesman for Continue Atlanta’s Progress, said it is only backing candidates who received unanimous approval from the committee.

Several of the donors sit on the board of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, an organization of business executives, philanthropists and academic leaders who meet quarterly with the mayor to discuss citywide objectives. A snapshot of donors from the ACP board includes AGL Resources, Atlanta Financial Group, Delta Airlines, Equifax, The Coca-Cola Company, SunTrust and more, according to Friday’s filing.

The group has already spent more than $115,000 on various races in the form of polling and direct mail marketing, records show. Money it spends could provide a huge boost during the final weeks of a campaign, considering most school board candidates are likely to raise and spend less than $100,000.

“Independent expenditure committees can have a great impact on elections, because there is no limit to the amount they may raise and spend,” said Doug Chalmers, managing member of the Political Law Group in Atlanta.

The group signals a growing interest by the business community to re-engage the troubled school system after the APS cheating scandal, and signifies the mayor’s desire to have a role in its recovery.

Reed said earlier this month he plans to nearly double the next superintendent’s salary from $300,000 to $600,000 using funds from the private sector. While a search committee looks for a successor to Superintendent Errol Davis, Continue Atlanta’s Progress hopes its election contributions will influence the makeup of the next school board.

CAP is backing Reuben McDaniel, chairman of the school board, and incumbents Brenda Muhammad, Courtney English and Byron Amos. The group is also backing Steve Lee, Jason Esteves, Eshe Collins and Matt Westmoreland, who are all seeking open seats, according to the statement.

McDaniel said the mayor’s support will be “tremendously helpful” in his five-way race for a citywide seat.

“Mayor Reed is respected and popular in our community. Most people believe he’s done a wonderful job for the city,” McDaniel said.

Even before the committee was formed, Reed was dipping into the school district races. He has directly donated to three candidates, including two who face each other in the election: English and Nisha Simama, an administrator at the private Paideia School. (Reed has also directly contributed funds to Muhammad, who faces challenger Leslie Grant.)

Simama said her other endorsements show she has citywide support, even without CAP’s backing. Simama has been endorsed by the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, the Buckhead Coalition’s political committee and others.

“I really believe the broad support I have will be the thing that determines this race, not any special interest,” Simama said. “When you’re in a campaign, you don’t get disappointed about anything. You keep talking to people and reaching voters, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Highsmith, chairman of CAP, said the group will direct dollars toward Atlanta City Council races, as well.

The group is expected to support incumbents Aaron Watson, Natalyn Archibong, Carla Smith and Cleta Winslow. Watson has the most high-profile race among them as he faces political veteran Mary Norwood, who lost her bid for mayor against Reed in 2009 by 700 votes.

CAP is also backing Ricardo Mosby, a little-known candidate in District 3 who is challenging incumbent Felicia Moore.

According to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, Moore has more than $18,000 in cash on hand. And Mosby, who until this week had not filed his Sept. 30 disclosure and remained relatively quiet, now has about $5,300 in cash on hand, state records reveal.

Mosby is already getting a direct boost from Reed backers, sharing some of the same donors who have given to the mayor himself.

Absent from CAP’s endorsements is Councilman H. Lamar Willis, a Reed ally who is running against Andre Dickens, a newcomer with the support of former mayor Shirley Franklin. While Willis may not receive backing from CAP, he does have contributions from some who have also given to the committee.

Bob Holmes, a former Georgia legislator and political science expert, said the use of independent expenditure committees has exploded since the Supreme Court ruling in the case known as Citizens United, which effectively paved the way for super PACs.

“The Citizens United case basically has opened a much wider door than what was previously the case, when (entities) would endorse candidates and provide them with funds,” he said. “As a committee they can go much further because it’s completely unlimited.”

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