By Jay Bookman, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
April 21, 2022
One of the running themes of the Stacey Abrams campaign has been her claim that Georgia Republicans are abusing their authority by undermining fair elections and tilting the playing field in their favor. It’s a claim that GOP officials dismiss as ungrounded.
So let’s take a closer look at one potential example:
Under Georgia law, candidates for statewide office can accept as much as $15,200 in contributions from a single donor. If a candidate is forced into a runoff in both the primary and general elections, that contribution limit can increase to as much as $24,200.
But if you’re special, those limits don’t apply to you.
Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, is special. Under legislation that Kemp supported and signed into law last year, he’s so special that he’s allowed to collect literally unlimited contributions to his campaign for re-election.
Kemp’s Republican primary opponent, David Perdue, is not special. He has to abide by the donation limits listed above. Abrams is also not special, at least not yet.
Those contribution limits were enacted for a reason. Money buys power and influence, and contributions limits are an attempt to at least put a ceiling on how much influence can be bought and sold. Those limits must work, at least to some degree, because otherwise politicians wouldn’t work so hard to find “special” ways to get around them.
In Kemp’s case, the law making him “special” took effect on July 1, 2021. On July 7, homebuilder Thomas Bradbury and his wife Wynelle donated $100,000 to Kemp’s Georgia First Leadership Committee, as the new law allows. On July 14, Bradbury’s company, SDH Management Services, donated an additional $150,000, for a total contribution of $250,000.
And as Doug Richards of 11Alive News first reported last week, Kemp showed his appreciation for the contribution by appointing Bradbury to a highly coveted position on the University System Board of Regents. Contractor Tim Evans, his business and his son gave $51,000 to Kemp’s traditional campaign committee; Evans too won a spot on the Board of Regents.
According to Kemp campaign spokesman Cody Hall, Bradbury and Evans were appointed by Kemp because they are “accomplished businessmen who bring a wealth of real-world experience to the Board of Regents.” The fact that they also brought other forms of wealth to the game – wealth as expressed in dollar signs and numbers – is something we’re not supposed to notice.
Now, why does Kemp get that special ability to collect unlimited donations, while most other Georgia politicians have to abide by limits? Under that law passed and signed last year by Kemp, he gets that special exemption because of his status as governor. The state’s lieutenant governor also enjoys that special status. I guess I see their point: What’s the use of having all the power and authority inherent in those two offices if they can’t be used to generate huge campaign coffers?
So sitting governors and lieutenant governors are exempt from contribution limits, collecting unlimited donations throughout their terms in office, while those seeking to challenge them are forced to abide by the old contribution limits? If you’re thinking that’s not fair, I agree.
So does Perdue. The former senator has been downright hapless in his primary campaign against Kemp, but he at least grasps the inherent unfairness of the situation. He sued in federal court and won, with U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen ruling in February that while Kemp could continue to collect unlimited donations, he was barred from using those donations in his primary against Perdue.
So where does that leave Abrams? In addition to the sitting governor and lieutenant governor, the new law allows politicians who become their party’s nominees for governor and lieutenant governor to also form “leadership committees” to collect unlimited donations. That makes it fair, right?
Not really. Since last July, Kemp has been collecting large chunks of money – $100,000 from a New York construction firm bidding on Georgia highway work, another $100,000 from a well-connected liquor distributor, etc. – while Abrams has been forbidden by state law to do so until May 24, when she officially becomes the Democratic nominee. The law has essentially given Kemp a year’s head start in fundraising.
Like Perdue, Abrams challenged that arrangement in federal court. Like Perdue, she convinced the judge that the law wasn’t fair. However, the judge also ruled that he lacked the power to rewrite state law to the extent needed to give Abrams the same “special treatment” that Kemp gets as governor.
One of the most basic concepts of fairness – one that most of us learned in grade school – is that the same rules apply equally to everybody. But sometimes they just don’t. Georgia state law should not have been changed to allow unlimited contributions, and it certainly shouldn’t have been changed to give incumbents an even greater fundraising advantage than they already enjoy.
Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.