Democrat’s IRS debt faces scrutiny in Georgia governor’s race

Democrat Stacey Abrams at a press conference at the Capitol. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Democrat Stacey Abrams at a press conference at the Capitol. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Candidates seeking Georgia’s top offices don’t just open their policies and personal lives to the public, but also their balance sheets. And the financial documents released this week have generated a stir in the race for governor.

Several contenders from both parties revealed they are pumping an enormous share of their personal fortunes into the race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. And one Democratic candidate’s documents detail her struggles to pay off debts to the federal government.

Stacey Abrams, a former state House minority leader, disclosed that she owed the Internal Revenue Service more than $50,000 over the past two years and is on a plan to repay the money.

She said she deferred her tax payments in 2015 and 2016 because she was helping to pay her family’s expenses.

Abrams, a tax lawyer who often talks about the difficulties she faces in supporting her parents, said her struggles will help inform her decisions if elected the state’s first Democratic governor since 2002.

They’re also sure to fuel campaign attacks by opponents who will question whether she can run the state’s massive financial machinery if she has problems managing her household debt.

“It’s definitely fodder for the Republicans to go after,” said Michael Owens, the Cobb County Democratic chairman, who added that Abrams’ financial woes could also help her connect to voters who face similar problems.

Seven-figure fortunes

The documents outline each candidate’s finances, down to retirement investments, personal bank accounts and even the values of their cars. They provide clues about how much each candidate for governor can dig into his or her own wallet to fund a campaign.

Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, Abrams' Democratic rival, reported a net worth of roughly $5.2 million thanks partly to a victory in a Medicaid fraud lawsuit. The $1.25 million she's already pumped into the contest is roughly one-quarter of her wealth, and it shows she likely can't substantially finance her campaign.

That also applies to Republican Clay Tippins, a first-time candidate who has already loaned himself $450,000 to jump-start his campaign. The tech executive reported a net worth of about $750,000.

And former state Sen. Hunter Hill, who heads an executive coaching firm, has a net worth of roughly $450,000 and stakes in consulting firms and a real estate investing company.

State Sen. Michael Williams, who has pumped more than $1 million into his campaign, said he was worth about $9 million.

Other leading Republicans in the race have amassed seven-figure fortunes, but not enough to rely on to fuel their own campaigns.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp listed millions of dollars in assets with 16 businesses, including a struggling sunflower oil processor that has been targeted by lawsuits from investors who claim more than $700,000 in unpaid loans. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner, listed a net worth of about $1.6 million, mostly in real estate holdings.

A familiar issue

Abrams is far from the first high-profile Georgia candidate to face concerns about her finances, and others have used their balance sheets to try to relate to voters who also face financial difficulties.

In his 2010 campaign for governor, Deal revealed he had $2.4 million in debts in 2009-2010, largely due to a loan he guaranteed for his daughter and son-in-law to open a sporting goods store. The store failed in 2009, costing Deal an additional $2 million in direct investment losses when the debt transferred to him.

On the campaign trail during his run for governor, the Republican talked about making painful decisions to help his family just like other families would do. He later sold the store and settled the debts, and his latest disclosure shows most of his assets tied up in North Georgia real estate.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, too, faced criticism over her finances in last year’s race for the city’s top job.

She was peppered with questions about her $1.2 million second home on Martha's Vineyard — she and her supporters pointed out her husband is a well-paid executive with Home Depot — and she was slammed over tax liens totaling more than $38,000 filed in 2006.

In a deeply personal response in a televised debate, Bottoms said those charges were incurred as she and her husband racked up an “enormous amount” of medical expenses when they were struggling to get pregnant and that the debt was now “paid and satisfied.”

Stretching pennies

Abrams, 44, has talked publicly about her struggles with mounting credit card debt dating to when she was a student at Spelman College. And she said she "stretched every penny I had" to help her parents after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

She cited those expenses in her decision to work out a payment plan for the $54,000 she owes the IRS. She’s also said a previous federal income tax lien of nearly $30,000 was filed erroneously in 2010 when she was trying to claim her parents as dependents as they faced mounting medical issues.

"While delaying tax payments wasn't my smartest move, it allowed me to take care of the parents who'd sacrificed so much for me and my siblings," she wrote. "I remain committed to their financial stability to this day, and I continue to work hard to meet all of my obligations."

Abrams has highlighted the string of small businesses she's started, though most of the roughly $520,000 in assets she reported involved her Atlanta townhouse and an advance for an upcoming book on leadership. Her liabilities include $96,000 owed for student loans for Spelman and Yale Law School and about $76,000 in credit card debt.

Abrams raised roughly $2.3 million through January for her campaign for governor, and she has spent about 80 percent of that sum to hire staff and security, lease and outfit her campaign headquarters, and cover travel costs. She has also loaned her campaign $50,000.

The five leading Republicans in the governor’s race have not criticized Abrams over her IRS debt, and Evans declined to comment. But veteran strategists say it’s likely to surface in GOP attack ads that will try to paint her as a tax-hiking Democrat who doesn’t pay her own.

“It’s a management and competence issue the Republicans won’t hesitate to exploit,” said David Worley, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia who backs Evans.

Abrams’ supporters hope this line of attack will backfire. Her campaign said she “will be a governor who understands the struggles everyday families are facing” and shaped her economic platform to include a tax credit for working-class families and a financial literacy program.

Hillary Holley, an Atlanta teacher, said she has also chipped in to help her parents pay utility bills while working her way through college. Learning about Abrams’ debt, Holley said, assured her that the Democrat is the only candidate who has “been through the kinds of things my family and friends have gone through.”

“Me and everyone I know struggle with debt and are trying to be a part of the middle class,” Holley added. “Being poor is expensive, and I see that she gets where I’m coming from and her policies and plans reflect that.”

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