A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Soft on Crime in Georgia?

GOP and independent ads call Democrat Jim Martin wimpy on child prostitution and drunk driving. Both claims are misleading.


Summary

New ads in the Georgia Senate race attack Democrat Martin for his votes on crime bills. But they offer a misleading look at his record:

  • A Republican Party ad claims that Martin voted against "making it a felony to solicit a child for prostitution." In fact, Martin voted against a version of the bill on the grounds that it would have made it a felony for one teenager to ask another willing teen for oral sex without any offer of money. He supported the child prostitution bill 16 days later when the words "for money" were added.
  • Freedom’s Watch, a pro-Republican group, says Martin "helped block stiffer penalties for drunk drivers." Actually, Martin voted for the stiffer penalties as part of a compromise that was applauded by Gov. Zell Miller.

Analysis

As Georgians count the days until the Senate run-off election Dec. 2, the ad wars rage on. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Freedom’s Watch attack Democratic challenger Jim Martin as soft on crime, citing carefully chosen votes from his days as a state representative. But neither group is telling the whole story.

A Tall Tale on a Selective Vote
 

An NRSC ad claims Martin was "one of three to vote against making it a felony to solicit a child for prostitution." Actually, Martin eventually supported the child prostitution bill after it was rewritten. He objected to language that would have allowed willing teenagers to be prosecuted as felons for engaging in oral sex.

[TET ] 

NRSC Ad: "Real Jim Martin" 

Announcer: Will the real Jim Martin please stand up? He was the only House member to vote against making it a felony to sell drugs near a school. One of three to vote against making it a felony to solicit a child for prostitution. And he voted to pad his own taxpayer-funded expense account 27 percent. There’s the Jim Martin you see on TV … Then, there’s the real Jim Martin.

The Republican National Senatorial Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET]

Martin’s campaign notes that he voted in favor of the bill 16 days later, after a slight wording change.

Martin voted against House legislation on Feb. 1, 1988, and was one of only three representatives to do so. Martin’s campaign tells FactCheck.org that the original bill contained a constitutional problem. It defined solicitation of sodomy (which can be either oral or anal sex under Georgia law) from a person under age 17 as a felony – whether or not it is done for money. "That’s why he voted against it," says Patrick Suter, Martin’s research director. Suter said the bill as worded would have made it illegal for two willing teenagers to have sex.

The Georgia Senate then offered a substitute bill, and when it came to the House for a vote on Feb. 17, 1988, Martin voted for it. We looked at the votes and language of both versions of the bill published in the Georgia House Journal. The Senate version stipulated that a solicitation of sodomy must be "for money" to be a felony. Other than those two words, the House and Senate versions were identical. The Senate version passed the House unanimously.

Drugs Near School
 

The ad also claims that Martin "was the only House member to vote against making it a felony to sell drugs near a school." Martin did vote against a bill in March 1990 that said it would be a felony to "manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance or marijuana in, on, or within 1,000 feet" of any school property. Martin’s campaign says he voted against the bill because it was unnecessary. "The bottom line is selling drugs period was always a felony," Suter told us. But the ad is correct that Martin was the only representative to cast a "nay" vote.

The ad further claims that Martin voted to "pad" his own expense account. What he did, as we explained in our previous story, "Peach State Piffle," was to vote in 1995 for a $16 increase in daily expense accounts for legislators, from $59 to $75. It was the first such increase in more than 10 years.

DUIs and Domestic Abuse
 

An ad from Freedom’s Watch, a group backed by former Bush administration officials, says Martin "failed to look out for Georgia families," claiming he "actually helped block stiffer penalties for drunk drivers." But the claim is based on the opinion of then-Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, who complained to the press that state House leaders were blocking his legislation.

[TET ]Freedom’s Watch Ad: "Bad Guys"

Announcer: Nothing’s more important than your family’s safety. That’s why we have laws to protect them from harm. But you need to know one public leader failed to look out for Georgia families: Jim Martin. First, he actually helped block stiffer penalties for drunk drivers. And then, Martin voted against tougher sentences for domestic abuse. Two chances to keep your family safer. Jim Martin was wrong on both. Tell him to support tough on crime policies.

Freedom’s Watch is responsible for the content of this advertising.[/TET]

The ad cites a Jan. 26, 1997, article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that says:

AJC, Jan. 26, 1997: Miller said Georgians want the stiffer penalties. But, he said, stronger DUI laws have been defeated for the past six years by Democratic leaders in the House, namely House Speaker Tom Murphy (D-Bremen), House Majority Leader Larry Walker (D-Perry), Committee Chairmen Rep. Terry Coleman (D-Eastman), Rep. Bobby Parham (D-Milledgeville) and Rep. Jim Martin (D-Atlanta).

“They’ve used their positions … to kill this legislation and they are set to do it again,” Miller said. “They’re honorable men … but they don’t comprehend the incredible wreckage and pain that drunk drivers cause.”

A mere month later, however, Miller applauded House leaders for pushing through a compromise plan, which combined teen driving initiatives backed by the lieutenant governor and DUI regulations pushed by Miller.

AJC, Feb. 21, 1997: Gov. Zell Miller, who a month ago criticized House leaders for adopting DUI bills “as weak as dishwater,” finally got everything he wanted this year to get tougher on drunk drivers, a spokesman said Thursday.

Both Miller and Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, who blamed House Speaker Tom Murphy (D-Bremen) for blocking strong DUI bills for the past six years, were far more conciliatory this week.

Miller praised top House Democrats and Republicans for putting aside “partisan affiliations and political differences” to draft the bill. It’s expected to move quickly through committee and onto the House floor.

“The important thing now is to get this issue behind us and move on to other important business before us,” Miller said.

The bill would revoke the driver’s licenses of those under age 21 who are caught driving drunk, require 24 hours of jail time for anyone arrested for a DUI, and allow a judge to take away the license plates of repeat offenders. Miller signed it into law April 14, 1997.

Freedom’s Watch also says in the ad that Martin “voted against tougher sentences for domestic abuse.” That’s true; he did vote against another Miller-backed bill that would have created a mandatory jail sentence of five days for first-time domestic assault offenders, with longer sentences for repeat convictions, and created new felony domestic violence crimes. It’s worth noting that many in the House agreed with Martin, as the bill failed. Martin told the Florida Times-Union that he opposed the legislation because “I just don’t agree with the governor that putting everyone in jail is good public policy.” The article, which Freedom’s Watch cites as its source in the ad, noted that “Martin at one time worked for Georgia Legal Services and helped draft one of the first domestic violence laws.”

Domestic violence victim advocates applauded the measure as a way to give women time to escape from an abuser. Some lawmakers, meanwhile, argued that the bill would make parents fearful of disciplining their children, according to another article in the Florida Times-Union.

A Personal Story

Martin released a new ad to counter the soft-on-crime charges by telling of his own family’s victimization. Speaking softly to the camera, Martin says: “You never forget the horror of coming face to face with violent crime. My daughter Becky was kidnapped. She was only 8. We were blessed that she got away, but I’ve never forgotten the way she trembled when she faced her kidnapper in court.”

The Democratic candidate doesn’t cite any votes or legislation but relies on an emotional plea to voters to make his case. Martin ends the spot by saying, “[I]n the Senate, I’ll keep working to protect all our families.”

– by Lori Robertson

Update, Dec. 1: On the FactCheck Wire today, we addressed one last claim that both Chambliss and the NRSC have made: a charge that Martin tried to increase property taxes 150 percent. That’s a misrepresentation of a 1995 bill that Martin introduced in the Georgia House. See the Wire for more.

Sources

Georgia House Journal, pages 503-505, 1 Feb 1988.

Georgia House Journal, pages 1,165-1,167, 17 Feb 1988.

Interview with Patrick Suter, research director for Jim Martin’s campaign, 25 Nov 2008.

Georgia House Journal, pages 2,584-2,586, 7 March 1990.

Alexander, Kathey. “Miller demands stiffer DUI laws.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 26 Jan 1997.

Alexander, Kathey. “’97 GEORGIA LEGISLATURE; Driving bill gets widening support; Compromise combines DUI initiatives and restrictions on teens. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21 Feb 1997.

Eckstein, Sandra. “DUI, teen driver bill adopted; Georgia’s new law calls for provisional licenses for teenagers and mandatory jail time for DUI offenders.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 15 April 1997.

Viele, Lawrence. “Insensitivity to women?: Abortion access limited, spouse abuse bill rejected.” Florida Times-Union, 26 March 1997.

Salzer, James. “Miller bill on family off floor.” Florida Times-Union, 25 March 1997.

Viele, Lawrence. “Domestic violence bill passes Senate.” Florida Times-Union, 19 Feb 1997.

Van Natta, Don. “Big Coffers and a Rising Voice Lift a New Conservative Group.” New York Times, 30 Sept. 2007.