In 1992, before I even started shaving, my neighbors in North Georgia first elected Nathan Deal to Congress. For 12 of the next 17 years, as I began following and then reporting on politics, Deal was my congressman.
Then, 18 months ago, Deal announced he was running for governor. And I found I couldn’t name a single thing he had done while in Washington. Not one.
Come Tuesday, however, this one-time invisible congressman stands to win the most votes for governor. Even if he is forced into a runoff with Democrat Roy Barnes, Deal will be heavily favored to prevail.
If he does win, it will happen despite his thin congressional record and thick paper trail of mixing public office and personal business interests in a way that is questionable at best.
It will happen even though the most partisan Republicans know deep down that that record and paper trail would, if owned by a Democrat, cause them to howl.
But mostly, it will happen because he has the good luck to face, in Roy Barnes, the most partisan Democrat this red state still has to offer.
But try as he might, Barnes hasn’t been able to run away from his own past. He hasn’t been able to convince the public that King Roy has cast off his crown, that the man who drew some of the most egregiously partisan election maps the state has seen would be more even-handed next time.
Barnes’ conservative overtures to cut some taxes have been drowned out by the lavish spending spree he’s also promised. And I have to believe that a truly humbled man, as Barnes claims to have become after his failed 2002 re-election bid, wouldn’t seek the office again.
(The third candidate, John Monds, is a fine choice as a protest vote, but he isn’t even the best Libertarian on the ballot this year — a big missed opportunity for that party.)
So, start getting used to saying Governor Deal. But don’t forget these questions:
1. In Congress, few of the bills Deal did sponsor went anywhere. How will he fare with a Legislature whose chambers — when they’re not at war with each other — have often been hostile or indifferent to the governor’s agenda?
2. There is little to get excited about in the policies that Deal proposed as a candidate. (Example: He’d flatten, but not lower, individual income-tax rates.) Even the better parts of his plan are not what I’d call ambitious. Does Gov. Deal have a vision that will take him (and us) through years three and four?
3. When news stories first emerged about Deal’s lobbying state officials not to change an auto-salvage program that richly benefited his own business, he defended himself in part by voicing concerns that the change ended the elementary safety checks that went with the title work.
But thousands of Georgians buy used cars every year without government-mandated inspections. Why should the state tell consumers to pay a specific company to perform such a basic service? In which cases will Deal trust free markets and personal responsibility, and when will he not?
4. Deal says he favors a limited federal government that doesn’t interfere in state and local affairs. So why was it appropriate for him to travel to Georgia, as a congressman representing a constituent (himself), to meet with county and state officials about local zoning and road-maintenance matters? In which cases will Deal side with local control over federal, and when will he not?
As you can tell, there’s much about Deal that makes me skeptical. But he’s about to get the chance to prove me and the other skeptics wrong. All Georgians better hope that he will.