In surprise, many trial lawyers backing Deal

Trial lawyers have long been the financial backbone of Democratic campaigns in Georgia, but Republican Gov. Nathan Deal is going after attorney money in a big way.

Deal raised about $350,000 from lawyers and law firms during the final six months of 2013, competing hard for money from the legal community against his likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter.

That’s more in six months than Deal, a former judge and prosecutor, raised from lawyers in his entire 2010 campaign. And it’s more than his Republican predecessor, Sonny Perdue, raised from attorneys during his re-election campaign in 2006.

It’s clear many lawyers are sticking with the Democratic ticket. Carter, who is also an attorney, raised about $450,000 from attorneys and law firms, about a third of his total. But the measure of support for Deal from the legal crowd is particularly surprising considering the group’s past heavy support for major Democratic causes.

 His campaign received $5,000 from the trial lawyers political action committee, checks from dozens of top firms around the state and even money from the civil court giants at Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer, who helped bankroll the Georgia Democratic Party during the 2000s and backed Deal’s 2010 opponent, Roy Barnes.

James Butler, the firm’s founding partner and a contributor to both candidates, said he expects lawyers will be split over the race. Butler, his partners and his law firm have given about $800,000 to the Democratic Party since the early 2000s. He has also hedged his bets by donating to Deal and other prominent Republicans.

“I think he (Deal) is doing a really good job as governor, especially given the constraints of the current climate,” said Butler, who contributed $6,000 to Deal and $2,500 to Carter’s gubernatorial campaign. “They are both really good candidates, they are both lawyers and they both respect the justice system.”

Deal’s predecessor, Perdue, targeted the trial lawyer lobby with a particular zeal, and one of the first measures that he signed in 2005 after the GOP took control of the House was a rewrite of medical malpractice rules that attorneys groups fought vigorously. He was also at the center of a high-stakes funding battle with the judiciary that almost led to a courtroom fight.

Deal has taken a different tack. He has declined to get behind a bill this year to radically overhaul the medical malpractice system that most lawyers oppose. And his backing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system was crucial to its passage. Many attorneys have applauded this change, which is designed to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Unlike many Republicans in the past, Deal hasn’t made lawyers a target for abuse to score political points. That has endeared him to some in the legal community.

“He has done a great job of appointing qualified judges, of not attacking the legal profession — as his predecessor did — and of respecting the value of the civil justice system,” said Bill Clark, who heads the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association.

Clark, whose wife has given $2,000 to Deal’s campaign, said the trial bar is more politically diverse than many think, and the only litmus test his organization has is whether a candidate or elected official is committed to upholding the right to trial by jury.

“While there is no doubt that a number of trial lawyers will support Senator Carter in his challenge to Gov. Deal, it will be his fidelity to the constitutional right to trial by jury — not to the Democratic Party — that will have garnered him that support,” Clark said.

The legal community’s divide has divided loyalties among many prominent Democratic donors. Atlanta trial lawyer Tommy Malone has given heavily to Democratic candidates. But he said his background with Deal — they were classmates at Mercer’s law school — and the governor’s support of the “role of the people in the civil justice system” led him to donate more than $15,000 for Deal’s two gubernatorial bids.

Some Republicans still use “lawyer” as a pejorative, so Democrats can expect to continue getting sizable attorney backing. For instance, critics of the trial bar recently ran newspaper ads with pictures of Republicans next to President Barack Obama that urged them to stop accepting donations from trial lawyers, who “promote liberal causes and frivolous lawsuits.”

Still, former Republican state Sen. Chuck Clay, a lawyer and lobbyist, said Clark has helped the legal community be “more pragmatic” and understand that it needs friends in the majority party.

“He has been beating the drum that we can’t be a one-party advocacy group,” Clay said.

That is showing more than ever in the governor’s race.

In 2006, when Perdue was running for re-election, his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, raised four times more money from attorneys than the incumbent. In 2010, Barnes raised more than $2 million from attorneys, more than six times what Deal’s campaign took in.

That has turned around since Deal took office, with the governor being competitive with Carter for lawyer money and taking in far more than Republicans did in 2006 and 2010.

Former House Judiciary Chairman Tom Bordeaux, a Democrat and attorney whose campaigns were long backed by trial lawyers, praised the criminal justice overhaul and said Deal has taken a “rational approach” to the legal system.

“Deal is a lawyer, he understands the legal system and I think he’s honest about it,” Bordeaux said. “The plaintiff’s bar is not the cause of all the wrongs of society, as some Republicans have tried to make people believe.”

Deal campaign spokeswoman Jen Talaber said the trial bar funding surge “demonstrates the confidence that people have in the job that Gov. Deal has done so far.” Carter’s camp declined comment for the story.

As the election nears, Bordeaux expects Carter to rally support from the legal crowd. He doesn’t see Deal’s success so far as part of a long-term shift toward the GOP.

“If this were four years from now, you’d see 80 percent of the trial lawyers backing the Democratic nominee,” he said.

Email James Salzer or Greg Bluestein.