Monday, February 9, 2015

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks hints at retirement, prepares to face federal charges

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2015 at 12:39 PM

Tyrone Brooks at a recent press conference at the Moores Ford Bridge
One of the Gold Dome's longest-serving lawmakers could soon retire from public office, leave Atlanta behind, and devote his attention to a lynching case that's remained unsolved for nearly seven decades.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, says he's thinking about moving on from the General Assembly to continue his work on investigating the Moore's Ford Bridge lynchings, during which a mob participated in the killing of four African Americans in 1946, but no charges were ultimately filed.

The longtime civil rights leader who worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1980. Over the weekend SCLC Communications Director Maynard Eaton sent out a press blast on behalf of Brooks, quoting the lawmaker as saying "35 years is enough. I'm resigning my seat and moving to Monroe, Ga to devote my full attention to creating a Moore's Ford Bridge Museum[.]"

Brooks told Atlanta Progressive News that he would also work on opening the Moore's Ford Bridge Museum Educational Learning Center inside an old school administration building in Monroe. Being based there, he said, would allow him to continue interviewing people involved with the case and would be the "only way to honor Dr. King.”

It's unclear yet if Brooks would resign from office. The state rep told APN that he'll likely finish his term, but not run for re-election. The AJC reports that Brooks hasn't decided if he'll run for re-election. We've reached out to Brooks for comment as well. If the lawmaker moves before 2016, he would have to step down, prompting a special election in a district that runs from south Buckhead to southwest Atlanta.

Sometime in April, Brooks is expected to stand trial to face federal criminal charges for committing mail, wire, and tax fraud and filing false tax returns. Brooks, who was indicted in May 2013 by a federal grand jury, had allegedly misappropriated more than $1 million from two nonprofits, Universal Humanities Inc. and the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, by using charitable donations to pay for personal expenses.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Group trolls 'religious liberty' bill sponsors, hires truck to drive attack ad around Capitol

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 11:03 AM

  • Courtesy Better Georgia
The battle over Georgia's 'religious liberty' movement is starting to get a bit out of hand. Over the past month there's been bills dropped, speeches made, and a poster child found for the controversial push to either, depending on whom you ask, bolster religious rights or discriminate against LGBT men and women. Now one group is turning up the troll factor tenfold by driving a massive mobile ad denouncing the bill and its sponsors around the Gold Dome.

Two press conferences are taking place about the issue inside the Georgia Capitol this morning. As those folks rile up their supporters, left-leaning advocacy group Better Georgia has decided to try another tactic: hiring a truck outfitted with a mobile ad to drive around the building for eight hours today. The ad's message is a blown-up version of an ad that the group placed in the hometown newspapers of two state lawmakers — state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta — who are pushing the religious liberty legislation.

“This legislation would give criminals who abuse their children or spouses a new excuse and make it even more difficult for police officers to put abusers behind bars,” Better Georgia Executive Director Bryan Long said in a statement. “Laws like that have no place in our state. We call on all lawmakers to oppose this dangerous legislation today.”

One press conference in support of religious freedom legislative proposals is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. The other, which is in opposition to the measures, will start at 12:15 p.m. today. You can see the truck cruising around in all its glory until 4 p.m.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tharon Johnson won't run to become the next Georgia Democrats chair

Posted By on Tue, Jan 20, 2015 at 3:32 PM

I can best serve the Democratic Party of Georgia as an advisor and partner, Tharon Johnson says.
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • "I can best serve the Democratic Party of Georgia as an advisor and partner," Tharon Johnson says.
Republican routed Democrats during the 2014 election. The blowout loss has since led to internal discord about what went wrong and how the party should proceed.

There have been calls, most notably from Mayor Kasim Reed, for the Democratic Party of Georgia to elect a new leader. Many had thought that Democratic political strategist Tharon Johnson would run against current DPG chair DuBose Porter. After mulling a potential bid, Johnson has decided against throwing his hat into the race.

Johnson — who has previously worked on campaigns President Barack Obama, Reed, Congressmen John Lewis, and others politicians — today issued the following statement:

At this time, I believe I can best serve the Democratic Party of Georgia as an advisor and partner to a wide range of leaders, influencers and supporters, both locally and nationally. As a campaign manager and strategist, I have an established track record of working well with Georgia Democrats including Congressman John Lewis, Mayor Kasim Reed, Superintendent Michael Thurmond, former Congressman John Barrow, Michelle Nunn, and Jason Carter as well as national Democrats with strong ties to both President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Most Democrats want to see a new strategic direction in Georgia. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. This is not a personal attack on anyone, but the party has not achieved its goals, especially as the state’s demographics have changed. We must move beyond the old paradigm of Atlanta vs. rural areas, black vs. white and other divisive factions if we are going to win. And we must get young voters —- Millennials —- excited and involved in our efforts from the grassroots level to leadership positions.

That’s why I am as committed as ever to working with state party leaders and elected officials to refocus and rebuild the Democratic Party of Georgia. The state party must come together now —- not in 2016 or 2018 —- to develop a winning strategy for voter registration, education and mobilization. In the next 30 days, I am willing to meet with the State Party Chairman and other leaders to rebuild DPG’s foundation and ensure we have the correct roadmap to turn Georgia blue again.

With Johnson passing on a DPG chair bid, Porter only has one other opponent in Rockdale County Tax Commissioner R.J. Hadley. But other candidates still have time to throw their that into the race. DPG elections are slated to take place next month.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Deal's 2015 to-do list: finding transportation cash, keeping Georgia from becoming Colorado, and taking over failing schools

Posted By and on Wed, Jan 14, 2015 at 12:07 PM

Check this cultural reference
  • Georgia Public Broadcasting
  • 'Check this cultural reference'

In a speech that included the words "parachute pants" and "jelly shoes" but not a single mention of rail, Gov. Nathan Deal today outlined what he'd like to see the General Assembly accomplish during its' 40-day session.

Among the priorities: approving a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take over failing schools; finding cash to "ensure that our network of bridges, roads and other vital infrastructure are well maintained and that the increasing transportation needs of our population are met;" and decriminalizing cannabis oil, a proposal that might woo back families who moved to Colorado to obtain the medical marijuana treatment.

Following up on remarks made during yesterday's "Eggs and Issues" breakfast, Deal said he would focus on addressing the more than $1 billion annual funding gap for the state's transportation needs. Though numerous solutions will be discussed on how to resolve the issue, he made a strong pitch to raise the state's motor fuel tax, which he said had remained the same since 1971. Choosing to increase the tax, he said, would play a key role in Georgia becoming less reliant on the federal government's funding, making personal commutes shorter and less expensive, and helping some businesses run more efficiently.

"We must maintain and improve our roads and bridges," Deal said. "We must provide congestion relief. And we must prepare for more freight and more businesses. We can debate how much it will cost to do something; but let us not forget how much it will cost to do nothing."

The governor also outlined a series of potential broad education changes that'll be sure to spark debate inside the Gold Dome. He asked state lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment that would create an "Opportunity School District" to let state commandeer failing schools. If passed, state officials would have the power to shut struggling schools down, turn them around under their supervision, or convert them into charter schools.

Regarding education, the governor announced the creation of an "education reform commission" to look at increasing access to schools, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, and expanding school options. The group, he said, would also be tasked with figuring out how best to retool the state's archaic Quality Basic Education formula — QBE, for short — which determines the amount of state funding that goes to each local school district.

"Just as most of us wouldn’t dress our children in parachute pants and jelly shoes and we wouldn’t teach them about computers on a Commodore 64, neither should we educate them under a 1980s funding formula," Deal said. "Our students are now using iPads and Androids. Why tie them to a desk when technology can take them to the moon and back?"

The commission, which is being modeled after the governor's approach to criminal justice reforms, will include a number of educators, legislators, and other stakeholders with a goal of implementing changes by the 2016-2017 school year.

Deal also touched on a number of other key issues including the decriminalization of some forms of medical marijuana, the adoption of a more "holistic approach" to help troubled families, and the continued implementation of criminal justice reforms.

We'll post a video of Deal's speech once it becomes available. In the meantime, read his speech below.

Continue reading »

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ex-Atlanta fire chief blasts mayor for 'unjust' firing

Posted By on Tue, Jan 13, 2015 at 4:30 PM

Kelvin Cochran, like other sacked employees who have come before him, doesn't seem ready to go quietly into the night. And conservative groups, keen on passing a "religious freedom" bill during the legislative session, are happy to hold a megaphone for Atlanta's recently canned fire chief.

Religious conservative leaders gung ho for lawmakers to pass the controversial legislation — and who have until last week lacked a face for their cause — today assembled inside the Georgia Capitol to call for Cochran's reinstatement. The rally comes one week after Mayor Kasim Reed axed Cochran following an investigation into the publication and distribution of a self-published religious book that includes homophobic and anti-Semitic passages.

At a bizarre and boisterous press conference this afternoon, which you can watch above courtesy of Fox 5, the former Atlanta Fire and Rescue chief expressed his gratitude for supporters' prayers and encouragement following his "unjust" termination for publicly expressing his faith. Cochran said that he had never expressed hatred or discriminated against LGBT community members or AFR employees — something also noted in the city's internal investigation of Cochran's actions.

Cochran said his firing offered a warning for thousands of other city employees who may hold similar beliefs: "You better keep your mouth shut or you will be fired."

"These statements... do not embrace the diversity of which we are so proudly boasting of here in our wonderful city of Atlanta," Cochran said. "Indeed a strong statement has been made that all people groups are welcomed and embraced in the city of Atlanta except the groups that believe in scripture regarding God's purpose for sex. This experience has taught me that there are worldly consequences for standing for righteousness."

Numerous religious and conservative leaders spoke before Cochran, often with fiery and hyperbolic rhetoric. Church leaders drew comparisons about Reed's decision to, let's see, Communism, Islamic militants, and North Korea. The protesters then walked to City Hall to deliver a petition with more than 40,000 signatures to the mayor's office calling for Cochran's reinstatement.

"The naked truth is that the actions taken against the chief are designed to send a message that will silence Christians and in effect force them to check their faith at the door of public service," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbyist group. "We must not let that happen in the United States of America."

Continue reading »

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Lawmakers, faith leaders, and advocates on Obama's executive action

Posted By on Fri, Nov 21, 2014 at 1:33 PM

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Gold Dome in May 2010 to protest a controversial Arizona immigration law
  • Alan Friedman/CL File
  • Hundreds of people gathered outside the Gold Dome in May 2010 to protest a controversial Arizona immigration law
Last night, President Barack Obama announced an overhaul to the country's immigration system that could allow millions of undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation. In Georgia, the reaction was swift and, from Democrats at least, filled with praise. Let's say that conservatives felt differently. Here's a quick roundup of what elected officials, immigration advocates, and faith leaders said about the controversial executive action. Peach Pundit and ZPolitics also have a handy summary.

Continue reading »

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Robocall blasts Kasim Reed for lack of support for Jason Carter (Update)

Posted By on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 at 12:27 PM

The fallout from the Georgia Democrats' blowout continues following crushing Nov. 4 losses in both the both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Since the rout at the polls, some Democratic party members have criticized Mayor Kasim Reed for his lack of support on the campaign trail for gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter.

And, apparently, the ire against Reed has caused someone to launch a robocall campaign against the mayor. We haven't heard the call yet — if you have the audio clip, send it CL's way —  but the recorded message reportedly urges Democrats to "never forget" the mayor's inaction. Here are a couple accounts of the robocall:

20/20 Insight is a Democratic research firm run by Jeff DiSantis, U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn's campaign manager, and Chris Huttman, a former political candidate who also worked for former Gov. Roy Barnes' 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Chris Huttman tells CL that the robocall did not come from his firm.

Reed, who's been rumored to have ambitions for higher political office after his second-and-final term as mayor ends in January 2018, fired back at the attack with a blizzard of tweets this morning:

In response, Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres sends over the following essay in response to the robocall and the state of Georgia's Democrats:

“What Makes a True Democrat?”

There is no lack of short-term memory in politics. In fact, it appears that selective memory is plaguing some members of the Democratic Party in Georgia specifically concerning the 2014 election results. Certainly, a healthy debate of how Democrats can move forward after the midterm election is welcome and needed, but that is not happening here.

The robo-call that made the silly claim that Mayor Kasim Reed did not do enough for Jason Carter to win this year’s governor’s race and that he “must decide if he is a true Democrat” was clearly sent by someone who is hoping that voters will have short term memory, and will be distracted enough to ignore how $30 million was spent to support this failed effort.

True Democrats stand with their Party, even when overpaid consultants and campaign managers tell you otherwise. When President Obama faced a tough re-election, I do not recall seeing these so-called “true Democrats” standing to defend the President’s record and leadership. They were not seen when the Mayor was riding from Tampa to Jacksonville or Orlando. They were certainly not seen when he was campaigning in snow in Ohio. However, Mayor Reed did stand behind President Obama, and when he ran for re-election as Mayor in 2013, he proudly accepted President Obama’s endorsement and support. True Democrats do not lead their party to failure and then blame their loss on President Obama. True Democrats understand that all voters matter — including African-American, Hispanic, and minority voters. They work to communicate with key constituencies during the entire campaign, not merely at the end of it in a token fashion.

True Democrats support policies that help people from all walks of life, like the minimum wage increase supported by President Obama, enacted by Mayor Reed’s administration for municipal employees and popular with Georgia voters.

Those responsible for the robo-call need to step forward and accept their own failed policies and strategies as the real reason Georgia Democrats faced a resounding defeat on November 4.

To be clear, this is not a personal attack on Jason Carter or Michelle Nunn. It is a thoughtful critique of an unsuccessful campaign strategy that backs away from President Obama and the values of the Democratic Party.

The Mayor’s position on this election has been clear and consistent from the start. In July, in an interview with GPB’s Bill Nigut, he said that to win, the campaigns needed to invest $3 to $5 million dollars to engage minority voters, increase registration and turnout and speak to the issues we know Democratic voters care about. His post mortem analysis is not a personal attack on Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter. It is a repudiation of campaign strategies that repeat the same mistakes cycle after cycle. It is a repudiation of a Party that backs away from President Obama and Democratic values.

Whatever the motivation of the operatives behind the robo-call, Mayor Kasim Reed will not be distracted from the important work that is required to make Georgia Democrats relevant, successful and effective. As he has said many times before, the future of politics is performance. His speaks for itself.

Note: This post has been updated to include additional information.

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Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill to return in 2015 legislative session

Posted By on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 at 8:45 AM

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus
For your first controversial piece of legislation of the 2015 General Assembly, look no further than the return of a "religious freedom" bill similar to a measure that received massive backlash from the LGBT community and some corporations last winter.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, tells CL that he plans to reintroduce another “religious freedom” bill when state lawmakers convene in January. McKoon says his proposal will help protect the right to free exercise of religious beliefs across the state. The bill will be his second attempt at passing a measure that opponents have said would allow business owners to discriminate against LGBT and other minority groups.

"Religious pluralism is one of the foundation stones of this country,” McKoon says. “Sending a message that people of every faith are welcome in this state, and don't have to worry about government trampling their right to free exercise, is something we should want to champion.”

McKoon says his bill will contain similar language to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 21-year-old federal law designed to block measures that limit a person’s free exercise of religion, which currently doesn’t exist at the state level in Georgia. The state senator’s law wouldn’t be the first in the country: 19 states have adopted RFRA laws that mirror the federal measure following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that weakened the law’s protections at both the local and state level. In addition, more than a dozen other states have passed similar legislation to bolster religious rights.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham tells CL such “religious freedom” legislation sets a “dangerous precedent” that could lead to potential discrimination against members of the LGBT community based on religious grounds. He also says McKoon’s proposal could reach far beyond the LGBT community. RFRA law, he says, can potentially be used to prevent women from accessing birth control or making it more difficult for someone to escape a household with domestic violence.

Under the legislation, Graham says business owners would be able to deny gay people services and employees could potentially discriminate in the workplace. Fortune 500 corporations such as Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Home Depot; the city of Atlanta; and the Georgia Municipal Association opposed McKoon’s 2014 “religious freedom” legislation for similar reasons.

“People’s individual religious views needs to be respected, but that’s why we have the First Amendment in this country,” Graham says. “We run into problems when people’s religious views feel the need to trump the law and deny important services to others.”

McKoon says his 2014 bill was mischaracterized as an attempt to copycat an Arizona measure that would have given business owners the right to refuse services to gay people. He says the controversial bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately vetoed, was different from RFRA legislation (Arizona enacted a RFRA law in 1999).

"This discussion about denial of services, the so-called 'right to discriminate,' and other things just frankly were not in any way representative of what the legislation would do," McKoon says. “[My bill] sends the opposite message that Georgia is welcoming and a great place to be."

In Georgia, Graham says sexual and gender identity rights already lack protection under state law, such as the right to marry and employer discrimination. Though that may change, pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s gay marriage ban, he’s concerned that the legislation could gut LGBT rights before they’re potentially restored.

“We had a long dark period in our country where various proprietors were able to deny services based on race, ethnicity, sex, or gender,” Graham says. “Sex and gender identity are not protected under the law. It’s still legal to be discriminated against [in Georgia].”

Following Sine Die, McKoon says cooler heads have prevailed in conversations he’s had with people worried about the “religious freedom” bill. If the bill gets passed, he’s not concerned about legal challenges related to potential discrimination, pointing to the lack of litigation in Mississippi following the approval of a similar bill earlier this year. But to keep conversations going, McKoon says he won’t pre-file legislation in case the measure needs minor adjustments.

CL has also reached out to openly gay state Reps. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, and Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, for comment. If wear back, we'll post an update.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cobb Chairman Tim Lee: I'm extremely sorry for not being transparent about the Braves deal

Posted By on Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 5:58 PM

  • Cobb County Government
Approximately one year ago, Atlanta Braves execs announced they were moving the ball club to Cobb County. After all the shadiness that's ensued, including the questionable approval of several hundred million dollars of public money to fund the stadium, Cobb Chairman Tim Lee has formally apologized to the county's residents for not being entirely transparent.

Will it change anything? Probably not. Let's just take a look back at Lee's latest manuever. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he switched attorneys representing him an upcoming ethics complaint hearing. Who did he choose? A lawyer who just happened to be the ex-husband of a current Cobb ethics board member. Lee's new attorney has since asked his ex-wife to recuse herself from the hearing.

But we digress! Here's a sincere apology note from the desk of Tim Lee:

Cobb Residents,

The past 18 months have been a whirlwind. No one, not even the most seasoned corporate or political veterans, could have ever predicted that Cobb County would have the opportunity to see the groundbreaking on more than $1 billion dollars in transportation improvements, more than $130 million in new business investments, a renewal of our AAA bond rating from all three rating agencies, and all while remaining the lowest taxed county in Metro Atlanta. And then on top of all of that we successfully negotiated the biggest economic development deal in our county’s history bringing another $1 billion of investment into Cobb County in partnership with the Atlanta Braves.

Each economic development opportunity is different and, therefore, each has its own individual challenges. Major transformational economic development projects like the Braves’ are always unique and complex. We moved with speed because it was necessary to seize the opportunity. At the Braves request, much of the legwork was done confidentially because a premature public leak that the Braves were moving would have irreparably harmed their ability to complete the negotiation. These were realities over which we had no control.

While everything we did was legal, I am troubled by the criticism regarding a lack of transparency and that we could have done a better job of communication to eliminate genuine concern or confusion over how the project came about. Some have ascribed the worst motives to me and everyone involved, and I believe much of that criticism is politically inspired or is being used as a subterfuge to attack the Braves project merely because they disagree with the decision.

On the other hand, it is clear to me that some of the criticism about how we handled the project is very sincere. I have faced so much criticism from political adversaries about this project that I unfortunately forgot some people like Mr. Cheek may be zealous in their opinions, but not wrong in their motives. In the case of Mr. Cheek, while I may disagree with his charges, I believe he is sincere in his contention we could have handled the situation differently. To the extent I have suggested his motives are not sincere, I apologize.

Continue reading »

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Ethics chief: Councilman accepted tickets, might not have attended trip

Posted By on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 3:04 PM

Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond
Atlanta's ethics officer is accusing Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond of additional ethics violations, including using the comic book buff's office to request tickets to Dragon Con and a VIP movie screening of "Captain America."

Bond earlier this year was the subject of a complaint by Ethics Officer Nina Hickson for using taxpayer dollars to foot the bill on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he attended a family reunion, buying party favors for high school classmates, and using city money for private tutoring. At Council's meeting on Nov. 3, Bond said he would pay back the disputed charges.

In a letter delivered to Bond on Nov. 4 and obtained by CL, Ethics Officer Nina Hickson told Bond that she has amended her original ethics complaint to include "additional potential violations." Hickson says she's uncovered evidence that Bond uses city cash to sponsor a breakfast event for the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority as a part of "Delta Day at the Capitol." In addition, she alleges that Bond requested and accepted tickets "for [his] personal use as well as on behalf of members of [his] family and staff" to every Dragon Con Convention since 2011, a 2012 Chaka Khan concert at the Cobb Energy Centre, a 2013 "Hunger Games" filming, and a 2014 VIP screening of "Captain America: the Winter Soldier."

"Further we found evidence that you received a travel advance to attend the Congressional Black Caucus Meeting in Washington, DC from September 15-19, 2010 with an indication of non-attendance," Hickson writes. And there's also evidence, she says, that Bond gave three staffers a $500 Christmas bonus in Dec. 2013.

Bond declined to comment on the amended ethics complaint via email, citing the advice of his attorney. Bond pointed to his comments at the Nov. 3 meeting and did say that he is "continually assisting the ethics officer in her investigation and I am cooperating fully."

The councilman has until Dec. 4 to respond to Hickson's new allegations. She also noted in her letter that the office is still investigating additional matters.

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