[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/28/02 ] 

SPOTLIGHT

Big business boosts flag-change backers 

By JOHN McCOSH 

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer 

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Dozens of rural Georgia legislators went on a political limb last year to support changing the state flag. Now many of them are getting a re-election boost from those who benefited from the change -- businesses.

Coca-Cola , Georgia Pacific, SouthTrust Corp., the Georgia Business Political Action Committee and a hospitality industry PAC are spreading hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates across the state who supported the flag change, according to campaign disclosure records.

Charles Hood, who handles governmental affairs for Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific, said his company used a list of flag-change supporters to target nearly $43,000 it donated to lawmakers this year.

"You understand what an issue like this can do politically and you understand that these people may need help," Hood said.

Led by Gov. Roy Barnes, lawmakers moved quickly to change the flag in 2001. Tourism officials say the state could have lost $300 million if the NAACP followed through with a threatened boycott over the old flag because of its dominant Confederate battle emblem.

But "Let Us Vote" signs across the state calling for a referendum offer evidence that some Georgians are still unhappy with the change and plan revenge against the legislators who voted for it.

The lawmakers most burdened by their vote to change, experts agree, are rural Democrats who face GOP challengers. Many of those Republicans are making the flag change a key campaign issue.

'These folks need some help'

State Sen. Richard Marable (D-Rome), in a tough race against Republican attorney Preston Smith, did not return phone messages seeking comment last week. But he said last year he knew his vote could cost him his seat: "For Georgia to move forward, not as we were but as we want to be, it was in the best interest . . . to change the flag. In my district, they may choose someone who saw things differently."

This year, Marable was one of several flag-change supporters to receive nearly $4,000 in contributions from Coke. (His opponent favors a nonbinding referendum on the flag.)

The total amount of corporate support won't be known before the Nov. 5 election because legislators have until next week to send in final disclosure reports. But records show that legislators who supported the flag change have already gotten plenty of contributions from the business community.

Host, an Atlanta-based hospitality industry PAC, is funded by companies with reason to reward flag-change supporters. It sent nearly $115,000 worth of contributions almost exclusively to incumbents in contested races who voted to change the flag, including $2,000 each to Sens. George Hooks (D-Americus), Rene Kemp (D-Hinesville) and Nathan Dean (D-Rockmart). Host PAC's money came from such tourism-reliant companies as the Hyatt Regency and Ritz-Carlton.

Bill Jones III, president of the Sea Island Co. on the coast, is another member of the hospitality industry backing legislators who voted to change the flag. In August he sent $1,000 checks to 15 House and Senate members who supported the change.

Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) is credited with helping to get the legislators and the business community together to help make the flag change happen. He is also chairman of the state Democratic Party and has made calls to potential donors on behalf of colleagues facing tough re-election challenges. 

"I don't think there was a quid pro quo," Smyre said. "But I think the conventional wisdom is that these folks are going to need some help. And I've been a part of that."

Companies and their PACs often give to candidates, but this year the usual donors dug a little deeper, according to disclosure reports filed by candidates. 

Coca-Cola, for example, typically sprinkles checks for a few hundred dollars around the state. But this summer Coke sent contributions of nearly $4,000 to several high-ranking incumbents, including Marable, the Senate majority whip, and Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman Rooney Bowen (D-Cordele), who also voted to change the flag. Coca-Cola's Connell Stafford, who sent checks to candidates across the state in August, did not respond to interview requests. 

Party leaders dole out cash

Powerful incumbent legislators from both parties are also taking a stand for and against the flag-change supporters. Some are among the largest contributors to the legislative campaigns, although they say they aren't targeting the flag issue, just competitive races. But in many of those cases, it's the flag issue that is partly responsible for making the race competitive.

"I've helped lots of people, some who voted to change the flag and some who did not," said House Majority Leader Larry Walker (D-Perry). Walker faces no opposition Nov. 5 but continues to raise money and distribute it to other campaigns. This month he held a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser in Buckhead where an estimated 150 people wrote checks.

Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), who also is unopposed, is donating his campaign money to many of the candidates challenging the flag changers. Johnson opposed the flag change.

"Most of my contributions are where we have competitive races, whether the issue is the flag vote or redistricting," Johnson said. 

A public interest watchdog said the way business and political interests are moving money to campaigns is cause for concern.

"With people who don't need the money collecting and redistributing the wealth, I clearly take exception to that," said Bill Bozarth of Georgia's Common Cause chapter. "But if, in fact, legislators were voting for this issue largely because of promised campaign contributions, that's very disappointing even if the cause is just."

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article from Southern Party of Georgia