A campaign event for Democrat Jason Carter erupts into fight

As the final hours of the legislative session ticked toward a close, the start of a campaign fight in the governor’s race erupted far from the statehouse. Soon, there were accusations of betrayal and claims of hypocrisy. One GOP official even alleged “criminal behavior.”

The source of this rhetoric was a fundraiser set for Sunday in New York featuring Democrat Jason Carter, his party’s nominee for the state’s top job, and his famous grandfather, Jimmy Carter. But it was the timing of the event, not the former president’s appearance, that prompted the outburst.

Georgia campaign law prevents lawmakers and statewide officeholders, like Jason Carter and Gov. Nathan Deal, from accepting contributions or pledges for campaign cash while the Legislature is in session. Deal’s campaign and its allies contend the fundraiser violated the law because invitations seeking pledges of at least $1,000 were sent out before the session had been gaveled to a close.

“By working on the clock to line up contributions for his gubernatorial campaign, Carter has betrayed the public trust and violated state law,” said Ryan Mahoney, the spokesman for the Georgia GOP. “Carter’s constituents should be outraged by his self-serving, hypocritical, criminal behavior.”

Carter’s campaign responded that the invites were legal because the fundraiser, hosted by REM front-man Michael Stipe and other Democratic heavyweights, went to benefit the Democratic Party of Georgia and not Carter’s campaign. Carter spokeswoman Meg Robinson said the event would go on as scheduled.

“This is nothing more than a desperate attempt by the GOP to distract voters from Nathan Deal’s complete lack of leadership and utter failure to address issues that are important to Georgia families during a wasted legislative session,” she said Friday.

The Georgia GOP also sent word of a party fundraiser on Thursday, during the waning hours of the session, that noted Deal's appearance. Deal's camp said the difference was that the GOP event wasn't arranged by Deal or his aides, while the invitation for Carter's event indicated his campaign authorized it.

State ethics officials didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

Campaign finance laws are rarely cut-and-dry, and this one is complicated by politics. Carter has said he will restore trust in government, a subtle nod to allegations by ethics staffers that Deal's office improperly interfered with an investigation. Mahoney, for one, claimed "the poster boy of the Georgia Democratic Party has an ethics problem."

Carter’s camp had a ready retort: “It’s not surprising that the cronies of a governor facing multiple ethics investigations don’t understand the law.”