Georgia’s state Capitol

Capitol Recap: In Georgia, exit stage left and maybe stage right

One group that has contributed to Georgia’s political atmosphere has put up the “Going Out of Business” sign, and another on the other end of the spectrum could soon follow suit.

Better Georgia, a group known for harassing the state’s ruling Republican Party, has notified its backers that it will cease to operate in its current form. It plans to become an online site of liberal news and commentary.

The Macon-based organization, which came into being as the state Democratic Party sat in ruins, conducted quick-strike ad campaigns - in 2015, it helped fend off “religious liberty” legislation - and before that it encouraged state Sen. Jason Carter to run for governor in 2014.

It also did some undercover work. A Better Georgia staffer once slipped into an invitation-only seminar at the Capitol and recorded Republican state senators who declared that local zoning laws were part of a United Nations plot they called Agenda 21 to deprive Americans of their property rights.

The group had clear ties to former Gov. Roy Barnes but claimed no link to the state Democratic Party.

“I don’t talk to the Democratic Party. I don’t talk to (then-state Democratic Party Chairman) Mike Berlon,” Better Georgia’s longtime chief Bryan Long told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2012. “There’s no coordination. Like none. Zero.”

Long is no longer the group’s executive director. His interim replacement, Alan Pearson, announced the closing in a note.

“The chief reason is our inability to secure funding to support the kind of operation that we had for most of the eight years of our existence,” Pearson wrote. “The organization, however, is transitioning to an online-only source of progressive news and commentary. We will officially relaunch Better Georgia’s Facebook page and Better Georgia’s progressive blog very soon, so please be sure to join the conversation on those channels.”

In case you’re wondering what an operation like Better Georgia costs, in 2016 — the last year figures are available — it took in $620,116. It spent $98,413 that year on Long’s salary.

Better Georgia’s exit has nothing to do with the possible departure, also after eight years, of the state's Immigration Enforcement Review Board. It just seems like curious timing.

The board, created as part of state legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, could halt operations if Gov. Brian Kemp signs into law House Bill 553. Both chambers of the General Assembly voted unanimously for the bill on the busy final day of the legislative session. A spokesman for the governor has declined to say whether he will sign HB 553.

During its first six years, the board received 20 complaints to investigate, all but one came from D.A. King, a longtime activist against illegal immigration. By October 2017, only one of those 20 complaints had resulted in a fine.

“It was timely,” said state Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Republican from Rome who sponsored HB 553. “It has served its purpose, and it was actually not functioning as originally intended.”

The pot thickens: Virginia Galloway of the Faith and Freedom Coalition says some state legislators may be looking for investment opportunities in medical marijuana.

The state is open for business, now that Kemp has signed House Bill 324. It allows six licensed, private companies to grow marijuana for production of a low-THC oil to be used by about 9,500 patients on the state’s registry.

So where do the lawmaker/entrepreneurs come in?

Galloway, whose organization opposed HB 324, points to this section of the legislation:

“(c) No licensee shall subcontract for services for the cultivation or processing in any way of marijuana if the subcontractor, or any of the service providers in the chain of subcontractors, is owned wholly or in excess of 5 percent by any state employee or member of a state employee’s immediate family, including but not limited to any legislator, state-wide public official, or employee of a designated university.”

The original House bill didn’t address ownership, she said, and a Senate version would have sought a near-complete ban on ownership by any state employee or family member.

But the compromise between the two opened the door.

“(C)onceivably, 20 legislators, or 16 legislators and 4 statewide elected officials could own an entire company, 5% each,” Galloway wrote in her newsletter. “More likely, they could individually buy stock in one of the big companies, up to 5%. Either way, their ability to make reasonable laws and appoint reasonable people to regulate these businesses is jeopardized.”

Money isn’t everything: After a close victory in November to gain entry into Congress, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath has been working hard collecting donations ahead of her next ballot battle.

In the first three months of this year, she took in $481,000 — a sizable amount when you consider the election is about 19 months away.

But she turned down a $2,000 contribution from U.S. Rep. Illhan Omar, D-Minn.

Omar, one of two Muslims elected last year to Congress, has faced heavy criticism for remarks that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic. President Donald Trump and other Republicans have recently accused her of speaking too lightly about the Sept. 11 terror attacks during a speech last month.

McBath’s rejection of Omar’s check is wise strategy in the 6th Congressional District, sections of which have significant Jewish populations.

She’ll have a tough enough fight as it is.

Two Republicans are currently vying to challenge her: former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who lost to McBath in last year’s midterm election, and state Sen. Brandon Beach.

Handel only announced last month that she would make a run at regaining the seat, so she only had about a week to take in donations during the most recent reporting period. Still, she managed to collect $240,000.

Beach is reporting that he collected about $125,000.

It’s time to talk: Democrat Stacey Abrams wasn’t ready to talk about reparations last year when she was running for governor, but in an interview posted this past week on The Root, she backed them.

“I believe African-Americans and Native Americans are entitled to reparations,” Abrams said. “We were the two communities who were legally disenfranchised from the inception of this country.”

Asked what those reparations might look like, Abrams said, “I don’t know enough to know what the answer is.”

Then she added, “But I should be part of the conversation.”

Getting ready for something: Democrat Teresa Tomlinson has been putting the machinery in place to run for statewide office: Her sights are set on U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s seat if Abrams chooses not to challenge him.

This week, the former mayor of Columbus posted a two-minute introductory video on YouTube. She used it to blast the Trump administration for its child separation policy on the southern border, trade wars and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Tomlinson also summed up her career as a lawyer and mayor.

“We showed that government can be a tool to improve people’s lives and get results, but Washington doesn’t seem to understand that,” she said. “In fact, lately, Washington seems downright crazy and mean.”

He’s got plans, too: Also considering a run against Perdue is Jon Ossoff, the Democrat best known for losing a tight and expensive race in the 6th Congressional District in 2017 against Republican Karen Handel.

Ossoff spoke recently to about 250 students during a town hall at a recreation center in Atlanta. He knew his audience. He earned big applause when he promised to “end the broken student debt system that traps millions in decades of anxiety.”

He also declared a need for “economic and technological mobilization” to fight climate change and opposed House Bill 481, the recently passed state legislation that would halt abortions past about six weeks into a pregnancy and before many women know they are pregnant.

Ossoff also pledged to stop “criminalizing poverty” and promised to pursue the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana and a guarantee of health insurance for all Americans.

Backup plan: Staci Fox, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said her group is working on a “worst-case scenario” plan in case the courts do not block HB 481.

It could involve bringing women seeking abortions to more liberal states, Fox said at the same town hall where Ossoff spoke.

“This is emotional and hard to talk about for a lot of us,” she said. “But we are planning for where we know abortion will remain safe and legal, how we increase access in those places and building the transportation networks — whether it’s taking a woman from Georgia to New York or getting a woman in Georgia out into international waters in the coast of Savannah.”

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