Of Cobb County’s 11 competitive races for the Georgia House, one stands out in terms of fundraising.
Incumbent Sharon Cooper, a Republican, and Luisa Wakeman, a Democrat, had raised a combined $660,000 by Sept. 30, one-quarter of the amount raised by major-party candidates in those 11 races.
The pair, both of them registered nurses, have faced off before. In 2018, Wakeman lost to Cooper by a mere 792 votes.
“I think she took a month or two off, and then January 2019, she was back at it,” said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb Democratic Party. “She’s probably the hardest working candidate I know of in Cobb County.”
As of the candidates’ most recent filings, which cover July to October, Cooper raised almost $442,000, more than twice as much as Wakeman, who raised $218,000.
After the last election, Cooper still had more than $200,000 in the bank to Wakeman’s $100,000. In 2020, however, Wakeman has out-raised her opponent by about $30,000.
“Her rhetoric isn’t ramped up super high, but she’s a long-term incumbent and you can basically pin the status of our healthcare situation here in Georgia — kind of, all roads lead back to Sharon Cooper as the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee,” Bettadapur said, pointing to the state’s “abysmal” response to the coronavirus, its poor national ranking with regards to maternal health care and its refusal to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid, one of the provisions of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
In an interview Friday, Cooper pushed back.
“I think that that’s a lack of understanding of what we do as legislators. ... I am not in charge of health care in this state,” she said, describing lawmakers as “troubleshooters” tweaking legislation as problems arise.
Nevertheless, she defended her record on health care, pointing to the passage of a bill she sponsored that authorizes the state to apply for a federal waiver that would allow Georgia to offer Medicaid coverage to income-eligible women up to six months post-partum. The current Georgia Medicaid program only permits coverage for up to two months.
Wakeman has said the bill didn’t go far enough.
“I’m happy that our current legislators finally took some action on this issue,” her campaign website reads. “But all they accomplished was to expand the Medicaid waiver for these issues from two to six months. If we accepted the full Medicaid expansion, new mothers would get up to one year of coverage.”
Cooper said the bill included almost $20 million to make the expansion possible, no small feat given the state budget crunch precipitated by the pandemic.
She also said the state has made progress toward expanding health insurance coverage.
This month, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a federally-approved waiver making Georgians earning up to $12,000 a year — the federal poverty line — eligible to enroll in Medicaid or employer-sponsored health insurance if they spend at least 80 hours per month engaged in a “qualifying activity.” Those include employment, on-the-job training, participating in job-readiness activities, vocational training, higher education or community service.
While 500,000 Georgians could benefit from full Medicaid expansion, projections show about 50,000 could be covered under Kemp’s plan in the first year, with the governor saying the number would grow to 270,000 over five years. Work requirements in other states have been approved by the Trump administration but tied up in court challenges.
Cooper also defended her list of donors, which includes an assortment of political action committees representing state health care providers and name-brand pharmaceutical companies.
“People think you’re bought — no,” she said. “Everybody knows ... that there’s no guarantee I’ll back them if I think that they’re wrong about an issue.”
Jason Shepherd, chair of the Cobb GOP, said Cooper is well-respected at the Capitol by Republicans and Democrats. He said said much of Wakeman’s support has come from outside the district she hopes to represent.
“What we’ve been noticing consistently across most of the Democratic candidates running in Cobb County is, most of their contributions come from outside of Cobb County,” Shepherd said, perusing Wakeman’s most recent disclosure report. “It looks like a lot of people in Atlanta want (Wakeman) to represent a part of Cobb,” Shepherd said.
A review by the MDJ of both candidates’ recent filings show only three individuals with a Marietta address donated to Cooper’s campaign, while at least 60 donated to Wakeman’s.
Notable donors to Wakeman’s campaign during the most recent fundraising period include former Cobb lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans, Doraville City Council member Stephe Koontz, state Rep. Bee Nguyen, Woodruff Arts Center director Doug Shipman, Cobb SCLC President Ben Williams, Dawson County Democrats, “Democratic Party of Georgia House,” End Citizens United, Fair Fight PAC, the Georgia AFL-CIO labor union, Naral Pro-Choice America, Barnes Law Group and a smattering of other labor unions and out-of-state political action committees dedicated to flipping Republican-held seats.
Among Cooper’s notable contributors during the most recent fundraising period are the Southeast Permanente Medical Group State Healthcare PAC, the Georgia Athletic Trainers’ Association, Georgia Propane PAC, the Georgia Transportation Alliance, the Georgia House Republican Trust, Publix Supermarkets, the Georgia Orthopaedic Society PAC, the Associated Builders and Contractors of GA PAC, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, almost two-dozen physicians at Atlanta’s Alliance Spine and Pain Centers, GlaxoSmithKline PAC, Georgia Medical Eye PAC, the Georgia Medical Political Action Committee, Georgia Psychiatry PAC, Georgia Emergency Medicine PAC, the Johnson and Johnson Corporate Political Fund, the Georgia Bankers Association PAC and Merck.
— Capitol Beat News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.