Originally created 05/18/99

Senate races unfair to poor, group says



ATLANTA -- A coalition of civil rights groups and Georgia voters heads to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today to argue that state Senate elections are unfair because they virtually exclude people of modest means.

Because it takes so much money to be competitive in a legislative election, they say, the system violates the equal-protection and First Amendment rights of nonwealthy voters and candidates.

"A state can't condition participation on having a whole lot of money," said Gregory Luke, an attorney with the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute who is arguing the case against Georgia.

A Morris News Service review of campaign records earlier this year found numerous examples of one-sided legislative campaigns, such as one House race in Augusta where Republican incumbent Rep. Robin Williams collected almost 30 times as much money as his two opponents, with most of the money coming from out-of-district sources.

While the opponent of Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, raised little last year, the incumbent took in $89,000, including money from companies in at least a dozen states.

The 2-year-old case centers on state Senate races. However, Republican U.S. Senate and gubernatorial nominee Guy Millner, a temporary-services tycoon, set the gold standard for candidates in Georgia politics.

Mr. Millner won GOP nominations for statewide office each of the past three election cycles. He pumped about $12 million of his own money into the 1998 governor's race, which he lost to another millionaire, Democrat Roy Barnes.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is former state Rep. John White of Albany. Mr. White lost the 1996 Democratic Senate primary to Mark Taylor, who went on last year to win election for lieutenant governor. In the 1996 race, Mr. Taylor spent almost $270,000 - about a third of it personal money - while Mr. White raised only $16,000.

"When we measure a candidate's potential by the amount of money he or she can raise, we ensure the domination of our system by the wealthy and well-connected," Mr. White said. "But the wealthy and well-connected represent a tiny fraction of society. Leaders who represent the vast majority of the people must be able to compete in our electoral system, and the current process of the wealth primary prevents fair competition."

Mr. Taylor responded, "John just did not raise money, didn't make the effort to raise money. I used campaign tactics in that race that I had learned from John White."

Mr. Taylor said Mr. White "is still very bitter over that race."

Mr. Johnson argued that Mr. Millner's losing campaigns show money isn't always the determining factor in elections.

"The ability to raise money is a sign of a strong candidate," Mr. Johnson said. "People don't donate money to people who don't have a chance.

"Money is free speech. I don't know how you restrict that," he added.

If successful, the case could lead to some kind of public financing or more stringent campaign limits in Georgia. However, similar battles in other parts of the country have stalled, and the Georgia lawsuit was initially dismissed in federal court.

Congress set up a public financing system for presidential campaigns more than two decades ago, but most states have ignored the urge to do the same locally.

"I don't think going toward government funding will make the system much better," Mr. Johnson said.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.