In the days after Georgia Republicans exacted political revenge on Delta Air Lines, several high-profile business leaders and airline executives quietly threw their support behind one of the two Democrats running for governor.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of recently released financial disclosures shows that some of the state’s top businessmen and high-ranking Delta employees ponied up thousands of dollars in donations to ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans and former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams shortly after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle vowed to “kill” a jet fuel tax exemption that would have saved the airline about $40 million annually.
Some of the donations came from supporters of the two Democrats angered by the vote in March to ax the tax break for Delta after it cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Others were more generally frustrated that the state rebuked its largest employer for wading into a gun control debate. And at least one GOP executive wanted to rebuke Cagle for not fighting the tax break more aggressively.
The thousands of dollars in donations amount to a drop in the bucket in a race that has attracted more than $22 million worth of donations and loans. Cagle, the GOP front-runner, controls the biggest haul by far — corporate CEOs, influential lobbyists and other traditional Gold Dome powers dot his list.
Still, Abrams and Evans both see the vote as a way to contrast themselves with Republican candidates who supported jettisoning the incentive. Both actively tried to raise money after Cagle issued his threat, with Abrams pitting the issue as a battle — “The NRA vs. Georgia,” her fundraising pitch screamed — while Evans seized on appeals from rival states to lure Delta’s headquarters.
“The tens of thousands of Georgians employed by Delta should not have to worry about whether Lt. Governor Cagle will say something reckless that will impact their job security,” Evans’ appeal stated.
That stance by Evans, along with her calls for more gun restrictions, are among the reasons Dr. Rob Schreiner, the president of WellStar Medical Group, pumped $1,000 into Evans’ campaign a week after the flap.
He said he’s known Cagle since 2008 and admires his record of public service, but that his embrace of the NRA went too far.
“His recent position on guns, particularly assault rifles, runs counter to my experiences as a critical care physician and the science of gun violence,” Schreiner said, adding that he regrets Cagle has “chosen this issue to differentiate himself from other gubernatorial candidates” across the aisle.
Some donors also wanted to send the message that Cagle, who has butted heads with corporate leaders before, has not locked up the business community’s support.
Larry Gellerstedt, the chief executive of Cousins, is one of the most powerful executives in Atlanta who has contributed to Cagle and other Republicans over the years.
He’s also a leader of the state’s pitch to attract Amazon’s second headquarters and was one of the sharpest critics of the GOP-controlled Legislature’s move to defeat the tax break after Delta refused to mend fences with the NRA. Shortly after that vote, Gellerstedt and his wife, Carol, gave $2,000 to Evans.
“I had an opportunity to meet Stacey a couple of times in the last three to four weeks. I like her and I am glad to see a candidate of her caliber running statewide for public office,” Gellerstedt said. “As an independent voter, I find Stacey to be most closely aligned with my views and hopes for our state.”
So did former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, an ex-U.N. ambassador who served on Delta’s board for about a decade. He’s a Democrat who was virtually assured to donate to one of his party’s candidates either way, but he gave Evans $200 shortly after the Delta tax break was scuttled — and appeared at her campaign office to criticize the vote.
Several other Delta executives ponied up to Evans’ campaign in March after the vote, though each declined to comment on his or her contribution. Two of the airline’s staffers also contributed to Abrams after the NRA flap, and both said they backed her long before the Legislature picked a fight with their company. Several business leaders who chipped into Abrams’ campaign during the controversy had a similar sentiment.
Eleanor Chin, a vice president of the Atlanta Business League, gave Abrams a $100 donation as the Delta flap with the NRA was erupting. She said she was impressed by Abrams’ platform after listening to a podcast, and she banded with some neighbors to support Abrams’ campaign.
“It’s not a statement about what other candidates are doing,” she said. “It’s solely a statement of my support for someone I think has real potential for this state.”
The lieutenant governor and each of his four top GOP rivals all endorsed the idea of stripping the tax break, though several of them criticized how Cagle handled the situation. Among them was businessman Clay Tippins, who accused Delta of "using your tax dollars to further their left-wing agenda" but also criticized Cagle for not blocking the tax break before the NRA flap.
That resonated with Zach Wojohn, the chief executive of Executive Parking System, who cited the fallout as a reason he gave Tippins a $250 donation a week after the tax break was sidelined.
“Casey was going to give Delta a $40 million tax break that small businesses like mine do not receive,” Wojohn said. “Georgia leaders should not pick winners and losers in business, and leaders should never sell out Georgia’s values. Casey did both in my opinion.”
As an officeholder, Cagle was unable to raise money at the time of the attack on the Delta tax break because the Legislature was in session. But his stance raised his national profile — and his standing in some polls — as he appeared on cable TV shows and conservative talk radio for days to tout his position.
He said the vow showed that conservative policies won’t be swayed by powerful business interests, a position he also took after embracing “religious liberty” legislation that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016. And he suggested that Amazon and other companies scouting Georgia would be impressed by the state’s conservative values.
“Georgia has some wonderful economic development announcements that are going to go forward. But within that context, there is diversity in thought,” he said. “And that diversity in thought, as a state, makes us better. It makes me as an individual better.”
HOW WE GOT THIS STORY
On Feb. 26, after learning that Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines had ended a discount program for National Rifle Association members, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tweeted that he would “kill” a proposed tax break on the sale of jet fuel unless the airline reversed its position. The state Senate subsequently stripped the break from a broader tax cut bill.
The move was hailed by staunch NRA supporters, many of whom are regular Republican primary voters. Others, including Gov. Nathan Deal, worried the flap would hurt the state’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. The issue is already playing a role in the race for governor, with Cagle and other Republican candidates touting it and Democrats criticizing it.
This story is based on an analysis of newly released campaign finance reports, which detail donations made to gubernatorial candidates. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined hundreds of documents, focusing on contributions made after Feb. 26, and then contacted donors to discuss their decisions.
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