Last week, former state lawmaker Roger Hines of Kennesaw became the second Republican to announce a 2010 primary challenge to state School Superintendent Kathy Cox.
His campaign slogan — “We can do better” — isn’t the catchy phrase likely to make Gov. Sonny Perdue smile.
The retired high school teacher enters the race with the support of a dozen or so GOP legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, so it is not to be taken lightly. Richard Woods of Tifton, also an educator, is the other GOP candidate.
“Education in Georgia is too important to get caught up in party politics,” Rogers said in Hines’ defense. But serious primary challenges to incumbents are rare, and they always mean something.
Officially, Hines is running against the lack of progress in Georgia schools under both Cox and Perdue and the “testing mania” that he says has killed the joy of teaching. The state Department of Education, Hines said, “has become a data management center. It ought to be an idea-producing place.”
But he also expresses worries, as have some other Republicans, about Cox’s ability to weather a third general election next November.
“It does concern me,” Hines said. “But I’m running not because of her vulnerability. I’m running because we haven’t moved.”
Last year, the state school superintendent and her husband, John Cox, filed for bankruptcy protection. Much of their $3.5 million debt is related to John Cox’s home-building business in Fayette County.
Only a few months earlier, Kathy Cox had bagged $1 million from the Fox quiz show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” She promised to send the cash to state-run schools for the blind and deaf. Creditors are now gunning for the money in court.
Even so, Kathy Cox confirmed this week, again, that she is running for re-election. Asked whether she had experienced any Republican pressure to back out, the school superintendent e-mailed the following:
“We are honored to have many great friends who have offered words of encouragement and support to me and my family,” she said. “I am working hard through these difficult economic times, to ensure that Georgia’s 1.7 million public school students are given a world-class education.”
Already, the former classroom teacher boasts checks from the No. 2 leaders of both the state House and Senate: Rep. Mark Burkhalter of Johns Creek and Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons. Sen. Ronnie Chance of Tyrone is her campaign chairman.
Cox supporters concede that her personal finances may require some explaining — which in turn could require a heftier campaign treasury. The state school superintendent has a lackluster reputation as a fund-raiser.
But Cox’s backers also argue that the economic downturn is so widespread that her difficulties are more likely to generate sympathy than criticism. Further, they point out that Republicans can’t afford to throw away the advantage that incumbency brings.
Not when the contests for school superintendent and governor are likely to be tightly bound — by the topic of education and by the statewide voting power of teachers.
(Democrats clearly understand the Republican dilemma over Kathy Cox. They have yet to field a candidate for U.S. Senate or lieutenant governor. But three Democrats have already established campaigns for school superintendent.)
Republicans have yet another factor to consider — their own sexual politics. Just as they do on the Democratic side, women form the core of the GOP volunteer network, from the lowliest envelope-stuffer to party chairman Sue Everhart.
Feminism is a subdued force in the state Republican Party, but it can be powerful when stirred.
To push an eight-year incumbent school superintendent to abandon her office, for money problems that occurred largely on her husband’s side of the marital ledger, might be seen by GOP women as an injustice. That the two Republicans ready to replace her are of the male species is something that’s likely to matter.
Kathy Cox’s claim to continued GOP support may have been strengthened this month by House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s unfortunate drama. A bankruptcy, even one involving millions of dollars, is nothing when compared with a depressive attempt at suicide.
Yet Richardson has no intention of resigning his speakership. The turmoil of his personal life has been compartmentalized and will not compromise his ability to carry out his duties as the second-most-powerful figure in state government, his friends say.
Kathy Cox in no way would wish it so, but Richardson may have made her case — in the most powerful fashion possible.
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