Despite opposing the concept, Georgia Dems create new leadership funds

State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent opposed legislation that Republicans pushed through the Legislature this year allowing the creation of "leadership committees" that could collect unlimited amounts of campaign donations, even when the General Assembly is in session. “But if that is what the system is going to be, you are foolish if you don’t engage in it. At that point, the only people you would be hurting is yourself and the people who support your policy," Parent said in explaining why the Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate have each created their own committees. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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State Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent opposed legislation that Republicans pushed through the Legislature this year allowing the creation of "leadership committees" that could collect unlimited amounts of campaign donations, even when the General Assembly is in session. “But if that is what the system is going to be, you are foolish if you don’t engage in it. At that point, the only people you would be hurting is yourself and the people who support your policy," Parent said in explaining why the Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate have each created their own committees. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

When the General Assembly’s Republican majority earlier this year pushed through legislation creating new committees that could raise unlimited campaign money — including during legislative sessions — Democrats adamantly opposed the idea.

“It should be called the Rules Don’t Apply to Us Act, the Incumbency Protection Act, the We Should Be Ashamed Act,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, when the Senate passed the proposal in February.

But Gov. Brian Kemp signed the bill into law in May, and five months later both the House and Senate Democratic caucuses have filed to create such “leadership committees.”

According to state ethics commission records, the Georgia Blue PAC Inc. was registered Sept. 15, and the Senate Democratic Majority Defense Fund was registered Oct. 11.

The law allows the governor, the lieutenant governor, legislative leaders from both parties and a few statewide nominees to create funds that don’t have to adhere to contribution caps.

The leadership funds are legally able to take contributions during the legislative session, while lobbyists are working to pass legislation and get funding for their clients. Many of those clients traditionally are big donors to campaigns and caucus funds.

The campaigns of individual lawmakers and the governor are still banned from raising money during sessions.

“We were all against that scheme,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “I have serious misgivings about American campaign finance in general, in that it’s legalized corruption.

“But if that is what the system is going to be, you are foolish if you don’t engage in it. At that point, the only people you would be hurting are yourself and the people who support your policy.

“We will be fundraising from individuals and people who support our policies.”

House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, whose caucus strongly opposed the leadership committee legislation as well, said Democrats will be cautious about who they raise money from during the session.

“You don’t want a leader to say, ‘Vote for this bill because we just got $100,000,’ ” he said. “That won’t happen on my watch.”

Beverly said because Republicans hold a majority in the General Assembly, they have a huge advantage in their ability to raise money from the kind of donors — lobbyists, business groups and companies — that have a big interest in what legislation is passed.

“What we can do (with the committee) is raise money for things that are important to us, money for things that are important to the Democratic caucus as a whole,” he said. “We can help drive the conversation.”

Kemp filed to create a new leadership committee shortly after the law went into effect July 1. It potentially benefits the Republican more than anyone else because it allows backers to circumvent contribution limits placed on individual candidates and gives him a head start in fundraising for 2022, when he faces reelection.

The new law allows the Democratic nominee for governor to also create such a committee, but who that will be won’t be known until nearly a year after Kemp’s committee began raising money.

Under state law, individual candidates for state office — such as the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — can raise $7,600 from individual donors for both the primary and general elections, and $4,500 for a primary runoff.

For local hopefuls or General Assembly races, candidates can raise $3,000 for a primary and general election and $1,600 in a runoff.

Those limits don’t apply to leadership committees, so, for instance, a company or business association seeking a tax break from the General Assembly could give to such funds far more than they could to individual members of the Legislature who will be voting on the bill.

In the early 1990s lawmakers made it illegal for lobbyists and others to give campaign contributions to legislators during the session because, besides the possibility for corruption, it just didn’t look good.

“If somebody has enough money, they can buy your vote on the floor,” Beverly said. “That’s why you don’t want individual members raising money during the session.”

But caucus funds that raise money to support GOP candidates, such as the House Republican Trust and its Senate counterpart, are already allowed by law to take money during sessions.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said that in recent years, his caucus has banned in-session fundraising.

But, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported, the House Republican Trust is holding a fundraiser two days into the special redistricting session — which starts Wednesday — at a George Strait concert.

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