Many Atlanta voters received text messages, emails, and other communications from shadow groups aiming to influence their vote. Atlanta Civic Circle takes a look at the 'dark' money in the mayor's race.
This month’s mayoral race ushered in a new era for Atlanta’s municipal elections.
Dark money donors—or Independent Expenditure committees—bombarded voters with billboards, text messages, and TV ads. Once fixtures on the national scene, these deep-pocketed donors are increasingly setting their sights on local elections to shape policies and anoint candidates.
They remain anonymous, even as the public pushes for greater transparency in elections.
“Voters don’t know who’s running messages or targeting their elections,” Pete Quist, deputy research director of OpenSecrets, told Atlanta Civic Circle. OpenSecrets tracks money in politics and its influence on elections and policy.
“You can’t really have a healthy functioning democracy if your voters are uninformed about what’s happening in their elections.”
Hoping to shed more light on these secret groups, Atlanta Civic Circle contacted more than a dozen people—political insiders and strategists, politicians, government officials, community activists, and attorneys. Many preferred to talk on background; some declined to talk at all.
“You aren’t going to see another mayoral election cycle that doesn’t include independent expenditure organizations,” former Atlanta City councilmember and community activist Derrick Boazman told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Adam Sparks, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in election law, agreed: “Expect to see more in the future.”
Atlanta has grown in economic and political prominence, making it enticing for outside influencers, Sparks said. As the capital of the new South, Atlanta produces more than $420 billion dollars worth of goods and services annually, placing it among the world’s 20 largest economies. That has captured the attention of independent expenditure committees.
“It speaks to the importance of Atlanta as a major city, particularly given the relatively small population,” longtime political analyst Bill Crane said. “There are only 600,000 people and less than 100,000 votes were cast in that first [mayoral] race. And it’ll probably be 60,000 [in the upcoming runoff]. The cost per vote in this election will set a record. Most donors at that level at least expect access and, with access, lots of things are possible.”
Boazman said this is the new norm.
Finding out who is behind the dark money and how much is being spent is akin to descending a rabbit hole: The deeper you go, the darker it gets. And certain federal laws help secret donors remain invisible.
Dark money is difficult to follow because it is often funneled through nonprofits, including 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations. The nonprofit can then buy political ads trashing or touting a particular candidate. The ads can only be traced to the last organization that spent the money, so the public can’t see who paid the initial group, OpenSecrets Investigative Researcher Anna Massoglia told Atlanta Civic Circle.
More than $1 billion in dark money has been spent since 2008, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And Georgia is becoming a dark money magnet.
Earlier this year, Georgia’s two senate races drew about $8.6 million in dark money, the most of any other senate race in the country, according to OpenSecrets.
Dark money’s tentacles are now reaching into municipal elections, due, in part, to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which helped donors skirt campaign disclosure rules and remain anonymous. Now they’re showing up in local elections such as Atlanta’s mayoral race.
Atlanta Civic Circle found that Atlantans Fighting Corruption was established in August, three months before the Nov. 2 election. Using the “Anybody But Kasim Reed For Mayor” moniker, the group placed former Mayor Kasim Reed squarely in their crosshairs through an aggressive persuasion campaign. One text sent on Election Day included a mugshot of Reed in an orange jumpsuit with the message “Today is Election Day! Remember #Corrupt Kasim is a CRIME BOSS!” A towering billboard in Midtown urged Atlantans to “Elect Anybody BUT Kasim Reed for Mayor. Stop the Corruption.” None of Reed’s opponents were subject to such an intense effort to throw cold water on their campaign.
Reed, who raised the most money among mayoral candidates and was considered an early favorite for a runoff, finished third, ending his chances of a third term as mayor. He did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s phone call or text message for comments.
“I’ve never seen [such] independent, organized opposition,” former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told Atlanta Civic Circle, referring to the outside groups. “Normally, the opposition is coming from other campaigns, but this was independent, organized opposition. Most voters would say they didn’t vote based on it, but I think there is some subliminal value. You know, we are influenced by a lot of things we are not really paying attention to.”
While Reed received the overwhelming bulk of the political bashing during the mayoral race, candidates Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens also have gotten their share of political trash-talk. Fulton County Republicans hosted an event for Moore last month, setting off speculation that she was backed by the Republican party. Dickens is under siege for voting to defund the police. A campaign ad by Safer Atlanta in the runoff appears to have darkened Dickens’ skin, a tactic used to make Black candidates appear more threatening.
When asked if she was involved with any of the organizations, Franklin said “I posted regularly on [the] Anybody but Kasim [site]. I used that hashtag on my Instagram page. I counted five or six [independent expenditure] groups. There were lots of people talking to lots of people. I don’t know who was [in] which group.”
Franklin supported Dickens before publicly endorsing him. Her late son, Cabral, was a political strategist who managed his childhood friend Dickens’ 2013 bid for Atlanta City Council Post 3 seat.
Dark money has found an ally in technology
Political potshots are nothing new but technology, including anonymous mobile messages, enables people to spread misinformation or smear opponents without being exposed.
“You see it more now than you did in 2008 because you have a more sophisticated level of technology,” one veteran political strategist told Atlanta Civic Circle.
So who’s behind the recent dark money ploys in Atlanta?
“The problem with dark money is we really don’t know the source of funding,” Massoglia said.
Donors could be anyone with a stake in the election—wealthy individuals, corporations, or even foreign interests, Massoglia added. The donors behind these dark money groups also can be former staffers, political foes, or family and friends who wish to remain anonymous.
“There are so many different scenarios that could be at play. And because there is not more disclosure and more transparency, the American voter is left in the dark,” Massoglia said.
Here’s what’s known about some of the groups that have inserted themselves into Atlanta’s recent municipal election:
Safer Atlanta is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that is not legally required to disclose its donors and is subject to less stringent reporting rules than political committees. Safer Atlanta’s domain name was purchased in April, weeks before Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she would not seek re-election. Safer Atlanta is a pro–Felicia Moore effort.
The anybodybutkasimreedformayor.org site has a disclaimer stating it is paid for by Atlantans Fighting Corruption PAC, which is a 527 registered with the IRS. The PAC was created on August 24, 2021. By law, 527s are required to disclose their donors. You can access the group’s IRS records here.
“There’s nothing stopping a 527 from taking money from a nonprofit and not disclosing it entirely,” Massoglia said.
Atlantans Fighting Corruption PAC shares an address with the Brown Group Foundation, a nonprofit whose contact person is, according to the PAC’s IRS records, Julie Brown, a political organizer and events fundraiser who shuttles between Houston and Atlanta, political observers said. Brown ran for Atlanta city council years ago. The custodian is Jason Hinton, who lists his address as Kalik and Associates, a Washington, D.C.–based political consulting firm that helps Democratic candidates, political action committees, and nonprofits raise money.
Atlantans for Ethics & Integrity in Government’s website is pretty bare-bones. Most of the links redirect to the top of the page, which is filled with stock photos. OpenSecrets found no incorporated entities or nonprofits under the name Atlantans for Ethics & Integrity in Government.
By law, independent expenditure committees and candidates can’t collaborate or message each other. Their campaigns can’t be linked. The independent expenditure is supposed to be totally separate from the candidate. However, according to Massoglia, “there’s ultimately nothing that can really stop candidates from being supported by dark money groups.”
“Theoretically, I wish they didn’t exist in American politics today,” former Mayor Shirley Franklin said. “They do.”
Note to readers: ACC will launch a Democracy book club in December. Our first book “Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy” by Daniel G. Newman addresses, among numerous issues, how to get rid of dark money in politics. Stay tuned for more information on how you can sign up for this virtual book club. If you'd like to know more about the candidates for mayor, be sure to check out our runoff election voter guide.