Session ends but issues live on … on the campaign trail

 By Aaron Gould Sheinin 7:41 p.m. Friday, April 30, 2010   Roy Barnes said the just-…

Georgia (May 3, 2010) By Aaron Gould Sheinin
7:41 p.m. Friday, April 30, 2010


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Roy Barnes said the just-finished legislative session was a disaster for Georgia. Karen Handel said there were real positive steps taken during the 40-day meeting of the General Assembly.

One is a Democrat, one is a Republican. Both are running for governor, and both will be joined by dozens of other candidates for all kinds of races who have already begun to dissect the legislative session for key talking points on the campaign trail that leads to the July 20 primaries.

"I want to make sure as governor we return to some sanity," Barnes, the former governor, said last week as he filed paperwork with the Democratic Party to seek his former office.

He said Republicans who control the Legislature had failed the state, including passing a long-sought transportation funding plan that is "nothing but smoke and mirrors."

Not 10 minutes later, Handel, a Republican and a former secretary of state, lauded those same issues.

"Clearly, how we dealt with the budget is going to really have an impact going forward," Handel said. "This is our time to make a decision to have limited government and transform government."

She said the transportation bill, which would allow voters in 2012 to decide to raise their sales taxes by a penny to pay for regional road projects, was "solid, a solid step forward."

With at least seven Republicans, seven Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent running for governor, the issues are not always going to fall cleanly along party lines. The fact that so few of the candidates for governor are sitting lawmakers will also change the discussion.

In fact, with the decision by state Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton) to run for Congress, the number of legislators running for governor drops to three: House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick) and Rep. Randall Mangham (D-Decatur). There are, however, other veterans of the Gold Dome running, such as former Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), as well as former Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal and Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker, both of whom were in the Senate before running for other offices.

But it has been 44 years since Georgia elected a governor who was not a sitting lawmaker, and that history could be important, said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University. Couple that with some mixed messages from the legislative session and all bets are off.

"You throw in there the divisions among the Republican leadership, the ethics blowup and then a lot of disagreements over the hospital tax and other issues, and it's not a normal cycle," Swint said.

Candidates must find ways to stand out, and blanket agreement with legislative leadership is unlikely to cut it.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who is leading in polls and campaign cash among Republicans, has tried to have it both ways, Swint said. He has campaigned as a Republican stalwart, yet at times he tried to distance himself from elements of the Capitol gang.

"He can distance himself from some of the legislation, but it's awful hard for him to run as any kind of outsider," Swint said. "He's Mr. Inside Baseball, really."

When Oxendine filed his paperwork to qualify as a candidate this week, he saluted the transportation funding bill, yet managed to criticize it as well.

"Transportation has been addressed," he said, according to news reports. "The solution has been different than a lot of us would have wanted. And I tell you, I'm not going to wait until 2012 and years after that for funding to come in."

The strategy is obviously different for Democrats. With little power in the Legislature, they are free to bash Republican leadership and their proposals. Porter believes that's a key advantage for him, as he has led the opposition in the House for the past six years.

This year's session "only strengthened what I was already committed to," Porter said, specifically mentioning education and transportation reform that includes passenger rail.

"Not just this year, but I always have," Porter said. "Like classroom teachers. Classroom teachers haven't had the support of their governor for 12 years."

Of course, Barnes would disagree with that, considering his first term in office began 12 years ago.

Baker, another Democrat running for governor, has also taken shots at the Republican hegemony in Atlanta. At his official campaign kickoff Thursday, Baker decried leaders who "make headlines … and make the same promises year after year but nothing gets done."

The water crisis got worse and worse. Traffic got worse and worse, yet leadership at the Capitol did nothing, he said.

Still, Baker also took a shot at some Democrats.

"If they're Republicans, they blame President Obama. If they're Democrats, they blame President Bush," Baker said. "They blame everybody … but themselves."

The legislative session was a huge plus for Baker's campaign. When he stood up to Gov. Sonny Perdue and refused to sue the federal government over President Barack Obama's health care legislation, Republicans in the House began an effort to impeach him. It was the best thing that could have happened, Swint said.

"He probably wishes they'd have gone ahead and tried to impeach him," the Kennesaw State professor said.


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