At first glance, the ad airing across Atlanta’s airwaves seems like the latest campaign spot touting City Council President Ceasar Mitchell’s campaign for mayor. The fine print is a bit murkier.
The ad features a mother touting Mitchell’s education policy and the candidate speaking directly to the camera. It ends with an image of Mitchell looking over Atlanta’s skyline with his words echoing: “It’s about creating for them the opportunity to dream and that those dreams achieved can change a community.”
Except it’s not paid for by his campaign; it’s financed by an outside group called “A New Direction for Atlanta” that is supporting his mayoral bid. It was backed by a six-figure ad buy.
Super PACs can raise unlimited sums of money from most any source so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. A recent opinion from the state ethics commission reinforced those restrictions, holding that a candidate cannot coordinate with a group that spends money on communications for that candidate.
Mitchell’s campaign referred questions about whether an ad prominently featuring the candidate violates these restrictions to Brian Svoboda, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in laws regulating political activity.
He said the ad doesn’t “expressly advocate for the election or defeat” of a candidate but instead amounts to an issue-advocacy spot that wouldn’t violate the campaign rules. (In fact, it doesn’t mention the mayor’s race at all.)
“The sponsor wasn’t established or financed by the candidate or campaign,” said Svoboda, “and it developed and placed the ad on its own in compliance with the coordination rules.”
Elections lawyers have been wrestling with these types of ads since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision triggered an explosion of super PACs. Lawton Jordan, a former chair of Georgia’s ethics commission, said the ad seems “technically legal” but that lawmakers should take heed of this type of spot.
“In my opinion, it is a cynical ploy and is contrary to the spirit of the law,” said Jordan. “Ads such as this underscore the need for strengthening these laws because this ad was clearly made and aired just before Election Day to promote Ceasar Mitchell’s election.”
Here’s the ad: