Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

No, George Soros shouldn't be meddling in local Ga. race

Matthew McCord seems a bit upset, and I don't blame him.

McCord, a Republican, had filed to run this fall for district attorney in Henry County, but recently withdrew from the race. He knew going in that he faced a tough fight against Democrat Darius Patillo, but he didn't know that his difficult task would become almost impossible after Georgia Safety & Justice injected itself into the race.

Funded by George Soros, a liberal New York billionaire, Georgia Safety & Justice had spent $91,000 on Patillo's behalf through August, making it hard for McCord to compete.

"Our district attorney’s office can’t be bought by people who don’t even live here,” a defiant McCord said before later deciding to withdraw. “Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, it should be appalling that Mr. Soros and my opponent believe that the office of the Henry County district attorney is for sale.”

I agree. It's appalling. Georgia Safety & Justice is one of a string of such groups set up by Soros around the country to help elect minority district attorneys who are sympathetic to a less punitive approach to criminal justice. Personally, I think that's a worthy goal. But motive aside, a New York billionaire should not be able to sweep into a Georgia county and -- by contributing what amounts to a rounding error in his $25 billion fortune -- pretty much dictate who gets elected district attorney. There's something profoundly undemocratic about it.

Likewise, there's something undemocratic about the secret political action committee set up by Gov. Nathan Deal to help him push his own political priorities, such as passage of his controversial constitutional amendment allowing a state takeover of local schools and local tax money. Sleuthing by the AJC has uncovered a few of the contributors to Deal's political slush fund, including large contributions by health-care groups, liquor distributors and others, but most of the donors remain shrouded in secrecy.

Health-care businesses and liquor distributors have no real interest in the fate of an education initiative, of course. But they do have an interest in buying the friendship and loyalty of a sitting governor. It's also highly likely that for-profit education companies are contributing to Deal's fund in hopes of winning future state contracts, but voters have no way of knowing.

So-called "dark money" also played a role in this summer's GOP primary between Cobb County Commission Chair Tim Lee and challenger Mike Boyce. A so-called "social welfare organization" spent more than $140,000 from unknown contributors on Lee's behalf, buying TV commercials and direct-mail pieces that spread blatant lies about Boyce's positions and background. From the little that came to light publicly, at least some of the money came from people with a lot to gain from county contracts.

In one sense, the scale of such abuses at the local and state level can't compare to U.S. House, Senate and especially presidential races. Voters and grassroots activists in both parties have grown justifiably cynical about the influence of special interests and billionaires who invest tens of millions of dollars in eager-to-please national politicians.

But as McCord learned in Henry County, a relatively small amount of outside, uncontrolled money invested in down-ticket races can have a even larger impact in distorting democracy.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.