Voters in north Georgia had tired of politics as usual. They demanded something different.
Now they have it — a 9th District congressional race that, instead of ending on Tuesday, will go on and on like a painful but riveting summer soap opera.
The featured player is certain to be former state House member Tom Graves of Ranger, whose lush black hair, easy manner and tea party credentials made him the man to beat in a May 11 special election to fill out the final six months of former congressman Nathan Deal’s term.
Graves walked away with 35 percent of the vote. Odds are good that he’ll win the Tuesday runoff against former state senator Lee Hawkins of Gainesville, a dentist.
Under normal circumstances, the fairy tale would end there. Graves’ defeated opponents would gracefully exit — offering only token, underfunded resistance leading up to a July 20 primary and a full, two-year term in Congress. (No Democrat remains in the contest.)
But we are done with politics as usual, and have shifted to politics of the bizarre — courtesy of an extended-stay motel in Calhoun, nicknamed by its current proprietor as the Methamphetamine 6. In honor of the habits of its clientele.
At the crack of Memorial Day weekend, news broke of a lawsuit filed by the Bartow County Bank, which alleged that Graves and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) had defaulted on a $2.2 million loan used to purchase the establishment.
The business case for the Oglethorpe Inn is unclear. But Georgia offers some tasty tax breaks for on-scene movie companies, and perhaps a series of slasher flicks was contemplated.
The 32-year-old motel and debt, Rogers and Graves say, now belong to another company owned by a fellow who wears an electronic monitor on one ankle.
Moreover, Rogers and Graves accuse the bank of reneging on a deal. The bank allegedly made a promise to two sitting state lawmakers — Graves resigned his seat this spring — that it would convert the obligation to a 2.5 percent, interest-only loan. On $2.2 million.
Take a few minutes to sort through your mortgage checks and see how your bank deal compares.
The most damaging feature of the lawsuit is the bank’s accusation that Graves fraudulently transferred two properties — including his residence in Ranger — to a trust in an attempt to frustrate the bank’s efforts to collect on the debt.
Graves supporters say times are hard everywhere, but especially in north Georgia — where real estate has plummeted like a red-tailed hawk on a doomed pigeon.
Graves denies any wrongdoing. “This country has a judicial system in place where business disputes like this lawsuit can be successfully and fairly resolved,” he said.
But the crucible of Washington is not famous for patience.
Assume a Graves victory next Tuesday. His supporters are enthusiastic, and last-minute developments rarely have a significant impact on campaigns.
Graves will be sworn in as soon as the vote is certified. Just as quickly, a complaint against him — third parties can be found, so the author does not matter — will be lodged before a congressional ethics committee to force a speedy assessment of the facts.
Which means that regardless of what happens Tuesday, many of the combatants of the 9th District will refuse to leave the field.
Hawkins took 23 percent of the vote last month. In a statement issued Wednesday, the former senator would not concede defeat in next week’s balloting . But he added this: “Mr. Graves has obviously used some very bad judgment in his financial dealings, and that controversy now apparently won’t end on Tuesday regardless of who wins.”
Likewise, Steve Tarvin of Dalton, a self-made textile executive, declared Graves’ financial situation “unfortunate,” but said he would not withdraw. Tarvin won 15 percent of the vote in May.
“I’m in it. I feel like I’m the true heart of the 9th District. I feel like in July, it’s going to be a different story,” Tarvin said. Of seven candidates who signed up for the July 20 contest, only two have said they would withdraw.
But none have sent the necessary notarized statement to Secretary of State Brian Kemp. As of now, all seven names will appear on the Republican ballot — a near guarantee that a runoff will push the soap opera into August.
The contest is already forcing signs of a split within Georgia’s Republican delegation.
Graves has the support of U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County. But U.S. Rep. John Linder this week accused Graves of lying about the amount of campaigning he’d done on behalf of the Fair Tax.
Kate Monaghan, communications director for the Graves campaign, said her candidate expected a strong showing on Tuesday, equal to the vote in May. And she pointed out that U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virgina, the House minority whip, endorsed Graves this week.
Monaghan singled out the dentist in Gainesville — the population center in the district is weighted toward that city — for criticism.
“Regardless of how much mud Lee Hawkins throws, the voters want a candidate who will not compromise when it comes to cutting taxes, opposing wasteful Washington spending, and creating jobs for Georgians,” she said.
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