Endorsement or a bad deal?

Hardly a day goes by lately without the Doug Haines congressional campaign announcing the endorsement of another prominent African-American politician or community leader.

The list is impressive: a respected Savannah alderwoman, Mary Osborne; an influential Athens minister; a state representative; and several state senators, among them the chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.

But there is speculation that Haines’ recent endorsement from a black business group may have come with a $76,000 price tag.

Former state senator Haines, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow, two-time congressional candidate Tony Center and former Washington lobbyist Caine Cortellino are competing to be the Democratic nominee in the November race for the 12th Congressional District seat, currently held by Republican Max Burns of

Sylvania. Center and Cortellino are both from Savannah.

All four candidates are attorneys. All are white.

Two weeks ago the political action committee of the Savannah Business

League, which represents about 40 minority-owned Savannah businesses, endorsed Haines for the July 20 Democratic primary.

Days later, the Savannah Morning News reported that Center had also

been approached by the league, which offered him that same endorsement at “an enormous price.”

“They said they wanted to endorse me, but [they said] ‘You’ve got to

commit to pay 50,000 dollars as we designate,’” says Center. “The money would be paid to their accountant, and their accountant would distribute it. But I had no choice in who receives the money or in the services I bought. And I said no.”

Martin Matheny, spokesman for the Haines campaign, says Haines paid

nothing for the SBL’s endorsement.

He says three of the four candidates -- Haines, Barrow and Center -- went before an SBL “screening committee” of 15 to 20 members to make presentations and answer questions.

“They graded each candidate individually and tallied up the votes,” Matheny says, “and that’s how they decided who to endorse.”

Matheny says Benjamin “Benny” Polote, Savannah businessman and

chairman of the SBL, did ask about campaign finances, but insists no money changed hands.

“They want to know if you have the resources to win the election,” says

Matheny. “We took questionnaires and meetings with large DC groups, and the questions are virtually no different.”

But Polote himself, for the most part, backed Center’s version of events

in a June 21 Savannah Morning News story. The paper reported that Polote acknowledged approaching Center, Barrow and Haines to discuss endorsements and providing “campaign-related services.”

Center was told it would take $50,000 for staff, office space and the like for the primary, and another $500,000 for the November general election to cover Chatham County alone.

“But I told Tony over and over that we were not talking about paying for an endorsement,” Polote told the Morning News.

Polote said the SBL quoted Barrow a sum of $84,000 for “campaign-related services,” but Barrow declined, the paper reported.

Barrow campaign spokesman Roman Levit offered no comment for this


According to the Morning News, Polote said Haines has agreed to have

the SBL “provide $76,000 in campaign services for the primary election.”

A message left at Polote’s office was not returned at deadline.

Matheny says SBL members are volunteering and making phone calls on behalf of Haines. But other than campaign materials like literature and signs, he says, there is no quid pro quo.

“There’s no financial connection between our campaign and the

Savannah Business League. We haven’t given them any money. We’re

not going to give them any money.”

In an attempt to quell the controversy, the Haines campaign has hired what it insists is an independent consultant, Arden Williams, to handle local grassroots efforts.

Campaign disclosure reports from March show Barrow with a commanding fundraising lead among the 12th District Democratic candidates, with $437,000 in cash on hand, compared to Center’s $132,000 and Haines‚ $57,000. Cortellino had just $78 in cash on hand as of March. The latest disclosure reports are due July 8.

This is not the first time the Haines campaign has suffered blowback from its attempts to court the black vote. In May Haines issued a press release citing comments in a political newsletter about John Barrow’s chances with black voters.

One passage quoted from the newsletter spoke of Barrow’s “consistent failure to prioritize the legitimate interests of the African-American community.” But that passage was a quote from a poll issued months earlier by the Haines campaign itself.

Matheny says the Polote controversy -- which continues to make headlines -- was stirred up by Center because he is angry about being passed over by the SBL.

“I think that Tony’s not just attacking Doug,” says Matheny. “He’s attacking the reputation of a ton of community leaders down there.”

Center says he merely related his experience with the Savannah Business League, and that it was Polote who “spilled the beans.”

“I find it incredulous that Doug Haines wants to jump on me because his endorser talked about him,” says Center.

“Well, when you get your hand caught in the cookie jar you want people to look in a different direction.”


Brad Aaron is editor and publisher of the Athens Weekly News.

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