Nonprofit seeks to tame the Wild Hog

Annual pre-legislative supper passes from lobbyist sponsors to food banks

For a half-century, the storied Wild Hog Supper has symbolized the beginning of the legislative feeding season at the Capitol.

Next Jan. 12, however, the annual kickoff to the General Assembly will not benefit hungry lawmakers so much as hungry people across the state. After years of paying for the dinner, lobbyists are backing away from sponsoring the Wild Hog, and the Georgia Food Bank Association is taking over. Now, for the first time, legislators will have to pay to get in — at $20 a head — and proceeds will go to feeding the poor.

“We can’t justify giving a free meal to the members of the General Assembly when there are people just outside the door of the Freight Depot who are in need of a free meal,” said Danah Craft, executive director of the association, a nonprofit organization representing seven regional food banks.

The annual event is twin-billed as a buffet of South Georgia feral pig and a chance to cozy up to the state’s top politicians and is held in the historic Georgia Railroad Freight Depot across from the Capitol. Hundreds of people attend the Wild Hog, but unlike most large legislative events no alcohol is served and lawmakers often bring family members and supporters from their home districts to pose for pictures with the governor and other leaders.

Craft said the format will remain the same, with the important exception that legislators will not be provided free tickets.

The change comes as lawmakers and lobbyists tiptoe into a new era. This year the General Assembly passed House Bill 142, setting the first-ever limits on spending by special interests on public officials.

The bill caps individual gifts at $75 and outlaws some pure entertainment expenses. The new law takes effect Jan.1; the Wild Hog is slated for Jan. 12.

‘I look forward to buying my tickets’

Between ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, Craft said the event should raise some money for the food banks. But the supper’s visibility and the chance to work closely with allies in the Legislature and the state Department of Agriculture are just as important, she said.

“We’re excited about the partnerships that it is going to open,” she said.

Craft, a registered lobbyist for the food bank association, said all of the costs and sponsorships associated with the event will be transparent.

That would be a significant change from recent years: some lobbyists who contributed to the event reported those costs to the state ethics commission, while others did not. This year, four lobbyists disclosed spending a total of $2,250 for the feast, although the total cost is estimated to be closer to $15,000.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the idea to shift the event came from the Friends of Agriculture, which “wanted to go a different route.” Black then approached the food bank association and asked them to take over.

“I thought going to the food bank was a good idea and I look forward to buying my tickets,” Black said.

Asked whether the move would increase transparency surrounding the sponsors and donors of the event, Black, a former lobbyist himself, demurred.

“I think it’s a good cause and I look forward to buying my ticket,” he said again.

In fact, he added, he’s going to buy 10.

‘Politicians and their lobbying friends’

Senate Agriculture Chairman John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, is an honorary host of the event and said he thinks handing the Wild Hog over to the food bank association will depoliticize it while keeping the tradition alive.

“I know just overall there was an idea that that it needed to happen, and if you could help people along the way that would be better,” he said.

While unstated, the change shows a growing sensitivity to popular dissatisfaction with the more than $1 million in reported gifts given every year by lobbyists to public officials.

Edla Ringue, a retired medical transcriptionist in Marietta, finds the tradition of lobbyist-paid dinners, trips and entertainment for lawmakers “embarrassing.” Does handing the reins over to the food bank association make this event more palatable to her?

“Well, sure. Yeah. Probably,” she said.

Ringue said she still thinks it’s a needless party for “politicians and their lobbying friends,” but at least it shows they are paying attention.

“I think they really are a lot more careful now,” she said.

Jet Toney, chairman of the Georgia Professional Lobbyists Association, called the change “a monumental move toward more conscious philanthropy” at the Capitol.

“And it does not diminish the purpose of the event, which is to provide families of legislators an opportunity to meet and kick off the three-month session,” he said.

Toney said it challenges lobbyists to give the dozens of big legislative dinners throughout the session a charitable twist.

‘Most (lawmakers) would still pay to go’

Tickets are $20 in advance through the association’s website or $25 at the door. Anyone with a ticket and a non-perishable food item can attend. But will lawmakers, accustomed to getting in for free, pony up?

Brian Tolar, lobbyist for the Georgia Agribusiness Council who reported a $500 contribution to the event last year, said he thinks the change in ownership of the Wild Hog will not depress attendance.

“I like the way they have restructured it where the food banks have a more prominent role,” he said. “Who doesn’t support trying to feed people?”

Tolar said he plans to make the same contribution to the 2014 Wild Hog by sponsoring a table. Craft said the state poultry and restaurant associations and SunTrust Banks already have agreed to be sponsors.  

Some lawmakers said the move is a good one and will likely boost interest from their colleagues.

“Anything we can do to raise some money to help feed the hungry is a good idea,” House Transportation Committee chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, said.

Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, believes the change will make the event more important.

“They’ve always tried to do it to kick off (the legislative) session, but to turn it into an event that helps a great charity is a good idea,” Harbin said. “Most (lawmakers) would still pay to go. I really do think it’s the way it should have been done all along.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.