A ‘deceitful’ attack by school voucher group backfires in Georgia

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said a school voucher proposal is dead for the year after a group supporting the subsidies sent out mailers to pressure Republican lawmakers. “These are people we have tried to help over the years," Ralston said, "and they turned to attack us very viciously.” BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said a school voucher proposal is dead for the year after a group supporting the subsidies sent out mailers to pressure Republican lawmakers. “These are people we have tried to help over the years," Ralston said, "and they turned to attack us very viciously.” BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

‘This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,’ Speaker Ralston says

A national advocacy group promoting school vouchers bombarded conservative Georgia voters with glossy mailers tying Republican state legislators from their districts to Stacey Abrams and other “radical left” figures. It backfired in spectacular fashion.

Just days after the American Federation for Children financed the mailers in at least 16 Republican-controlled legislative districts, House Speaker David Ralston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the voucher proposal the group sought to pass is dead for the year.

“I am livid. I’ve been around politics for a long time, but this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my career and one of the most deceitful,” Ralston said. “These are people we have tried to help over the years, and they turned to attack us very viciously.”

Ralston added: “That voucher legislation will not move at all in the Georgia House of Representatives this year, period.”

The mailers were sent by the Washington-based group to back proposals that would give public school students what it calls “Promise Scholarships,” a state subsidy of about $6,000 a year to help cover private school tuition. The measures had gained early traction in House committees.

Each mailer featured images of Abrams, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris above a picture of the state lawmaker from that particular district.

“The radical left want to cancel your right to choose your child’s school,” it stated, asking recipients to tell their representative to “stand up to them.”

The other side of the flyer featured the phone number of the Republican legislator, along with a plea not to let him or her “give in to the radical left.”

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A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: fil

A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: fil

Combined ShapeCaption
A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: fil

Credit: fil

Combined ShapeCaption
A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: file

A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: file

Combined ShapeCaption
A picture of the mailer targeting Republican lawmakers that the American Federation for Children sent to voters in several legislative districts.

Credit: file

Credit: file

The aggressive strategy was meant to pressure legislators to end a yearslong feud over public funding of private education in Georgia. Instead, the Capitol’s halls buzzed Tuesday with incredulous GOP lawmakers infuriated by the group’s approach.

“It’s very disappointing that this group is targeting lawmakers in the middle of the deliberative process,” said state Rep. Will Wade, a Dawsonville Republican who was not a target. “I don’t know who made that decision, but they harmed their own efforts.”

‘This made no sense’

An interaction between a state legislator and Christy Riggins, the federation’s Georgia director, didn’t help smooth over the rift. In the text exchange, which was reviewed by the AJC, the lawmaker told Riggins the mailer “burned some bridges” among supporters.

Riggins responded by asking the legislator not to “punish desperate parents and struggling kids because of this mail piece that you find offensive.” Then she said the group was “fully prepared to quadruple the mail budget” and explore other tactics to benefit allies.

Riggins did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the strategy but issued a statement Wednesday supporting the legislation.

“Given the disruption of the past three school years, parents can’t wait another year for solutions,” Riggins said. “They know how powerful Promise Scholarships could be for their children. We hope their representatives will listen.”

Several Republican legislators said the text exchange smacked of a threat from the group, which has long opened its checkbook to boost its Georgia allies.

The American Federation for Children has spent roughly $2.2 million in Georgia since 2010, according to an AJC analysis, mostly to finance campaigns for education-related constitutional amendments. The federation also gave tens of thousands of dollars to political organizations backed by Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

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The American Federation for Children, which has been pushing for the creation of a school voucher program, has spent $2.2 million in Georgia since 2010, mostly to support education-related constitutional amendments.

Credit: FRED SQUILLANTE

The American Federation for Children, which has been pushing for the creation of a school voucher program, has spent $2.2 million in Georgia since 2010, mostly to support education-related constitutional amendments.

Credit: FRED SQUILLANTE

Combined ShapeCaption
The American Federation for Children, which has been pushing for the creation of a school voucher program, has spent $2.2 million in Georgia since 2010, mostly to support education-related constitutional amendments.

Credit: FRED SQUILLANTE

Credit: FRED SQUILLANTE

In the interview, Ralston said the voucher measure was likely to face a “competitive vote” before the federation took this step.

“You had people on both sides of the issue in the Republican caucus. And the proponents had a better chance than they had in quite some time in moving it,” said Ralston, who as leader of the state House decides which legislative proposals reach a vote.

“But they have no chance now,” he said. “People who were for it are now against it. People that are undecided are against it. And the people that are against it are even more against it.”

The proposal’s demise was a blow to state Rep. Wes Cantrell, the chief sponsor of the legislation, who was not involved in the federation’s decision. Neither were several other key Republican legislative backers of the voucher measure.

It’s the second controversial proposal that’s been sidelined this session because of a blunder by supporters. Legislative leaders effectively buried the Buckhead cityhood push for the year after the head of the effort spread a hateful conspiracy theory about a beloved official who died by suicide.

In the interview, Ralston said he was still flabbergasted by the federation’s heavy-handed approach.

“This made no sense to me,” Ralston said. “I’ve never seen a group of people kill their own bill in this kind of fashion.”

Staff writers James Salzer and Ty Tagami contributed to this article.