Meet what appears to be one of the keys to Thad Cochran’s black-turnout operation, Mitzi Bickers.
She is, from all appearances, something of a renaissance woman: She is not only the pastor of Atlanta’s Emmanuel Baptist Church but also a former president of the Atlanta school board, a former construction-company executive, and a Democratic staffer and political strategist with a checkered past. Last year, she left her job as a senior adviser to Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed after news surfaced that she had filed a fraudulent financial-disclosure statement.
In a bizarre turn of events, it seems that Bickers was in the middle of a bitterly contested Republican Senate primary. Two Atlanta-based entities affiliated with Bickers, The Bickers Group and the Pirouette Company, were paid thousands of dollars to make robo-calls on Senator Cochran’s behalf by a super PAC that backed Cochran in his bid for reelection. Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission show that Mississippi Conservatives, the political-action committee run by former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s nephew Henry, paid the groups a total of $44,000 for get-out-the-vote “phone services.”
On Tuesday, Cochran narrowly defeated his insurgent challenger, Chris McDaniel, in a runoff election that was nasty and personal from the outset. In fact, McDaniel has yet to concede the race, saying that he is looking into “rampant” voting irregularities and calling on state election officials to release voter data.
When the June 3 primary election was thrown into a runoff, the Cochran campaign began looking to expand the electorate. That meant courting Mississippi’s large African-American population. The campaign deployed volunteers throughout the state’s Delta region, which has a concentrated African-American population, and even hired Democratic operative James “Scooby Doo” Watson to lend a hand. It worked: Turnout in the Delta increased nearly 40 percent on Tuesday.
Though not a Mississippi native, Bickers is no stranger to get-out-the-vote efforts. She has worked in Atlanta politics for years and, as a campaign operative for Kasim Reed, who came from behind to win the city’s mayoralty in 2009, Bickers, who is African American and openly gay, worked to get black voters to the polls. Reed won by just over 700 votes and, in the wake of his victory, the former executive director of the Georgia Democratic party called Bickers “the most well-known and well-respected” political operative in the state when it comes to turning out the vote.
Though the content of the robo-calls Bickers placed on Cochran’s behalf is unknown — Henry Barbour says he never heard the final calls, and that her efforts were “far more” about making live calls than robo-calls — it makes sense that the Barbour clan would reach out to her in an election that required Cochran and his allies to execute a near-perfect voter-turnout strategy, particularly among Democrats and African Americans. Henry Barbour says Bickers was referred to him by a local Mississippi mayor. Like Henry’s uncle Haley, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the force that loomed over Cochran’s reelection effort, Bickers is a hardened, southern politician who has learned how to win political grudge matches in a city and a state with a reputation for corruption and double dealing.
The Cochran supporters’ arrangement with Bickers is especially notable, given the role of racial politicking generally and of one sketchy robo-call in particular that raised the ire of tea-party voters as the race drew to a close. Near the end of the runoff campaign, a recording came to light — it was first reported by investigative reporter Charles Johnson – of a racially tinged call that urged voters to combat the Tea Party by casting a ballot for Cochran. It accused the Tea Party of “disrespectful treatment of the country’s first African-American president.” The Cochran campaign has denied any connection to the call, and Barbour says the call was not from the Mississippi Conservatives PAC or from Bickers. He believes, he says, that Bickers placed two automated calls to African-American households.
Bickers did not respond to a phone message left at her church, and spokesmen for Mayor Reed and for the Georgia Democratic party could not provide contact information for her. Neither Pirouette nor The Bickers Group appear to have operative websites. The 48-year-old pastor built a power base in Atlanta as president of the school board and later, in 2003, ran an unsuccessful campaign for the chairmanship of the Fulton County Commission.
She retired from public service in June of last year after Atlanta’s WSB-TV reported that, while serving as Reed’s director of human services, she failed to include on a financial-disclosure report, filed under penalty of perjury, thousands of dollars she had earned in political-consulting work.
While advising the mayor, Bickers was also working for the Pirouette Company, which in 2012 brought in over $500,000 in political-consulting fees from state and local campaigns. There was at least an appearance of conflict of interest in this work: Pirouette’s clients in 2012 included the Citizens for Transportation Mobility, a nonprofit group that lobbied for a transportation tax Reed strongly supported. Bickers amended her financial-disclosure form when confronted by reporters and retired from city government a month later.
Mississippi Conservatives, the pro-Cochran PAC, paid the Pirouette Company $19,660 for robo-calls in the last week of the runoff, and Pirouette has its own colorful history.
Another Pirouette client in 2012 was the magistrate judge Melynee Leftridge, a candidate for state-court judge, and Bickers worked on her behalf. Days before Leftridge’s July primary, a voter filed an ethics complaint against the candidate, accusing her of an “apparent elaborate scheme” to funnel thousands of dollars to Pirouette. Bizarrely, at the time, according to a contemporaneous account in the Georgia Voice, Pirouette was a dance company that offered classes on “strip teasing and pole dancing” as well as “boot camps and personal fitness training.”
Bickers told the Voice that while the company worked with youth through dance and the arts, she encouraged Pirouette to “move toward expanding its services from community service to disadvantaged youth to include election consulting and field work as the election season ramped up.”
Pirouette wasn’t Bickers’s only source of income. The website of the Georgia secretary of state shows that she founded The Bickers Group in 2004. The principal office address is listed as a private home in Atlanta, and the website of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission shows that she has made thousands of dollars through the firm — including while she worked for Reed — for consulting, strategic work, field operations, and get-out-the-vote efforts for several Georgia political candidates.
And, apparently, for Thad Cochran. Federal Election Commission reports indicate that the Mississippi Conservatives PAC paid The Bickers Group $25,000 last week for “GOTV phone services” — even though, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s website, The Bickers Group dissolved in September 2012.
— Eliana Johnson is a national reporter for National Review Online.
UPDATE: This piece has been amended. It initially stated that Jackson mayor Tony Yarber referred Bickers to Barbour. It was not Yarber, but another Mississippi mayor.