The Georgia General Assembly, the traditional way station for gubernatorial candidates en route to West Paces Ferry, is left with a single Republican and Democrat in next year’s governor’s race.
House Speaker pro tem Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek) declared Thursday he’ll skip the 2010 race. He dined with four close friends to weigh the decision. “It was very positive,” he said. “If I had listened entirely to them, I would have run. They gave me some great perspective and the sense of comfort and confidence that friends give you.”
But , he said, “it really boiled down to ‘what did I think over the next 18 to 20 months that I could do to most positively affect the future of the state?’” That, he concluded, is to remain in the House and grow the conservative majority, even though opportunities like this may arise once in a career.
The next day, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Grantville), former minority leader in the Georgia House, announced that he’ll stay in Congress. “It’s best for me to remain in Congress where I think I can make a difference as a legislative fighter.”
For Republicans, the sole candidate with legislative experience remaining is state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, first elected to the House 14 years ago at age 26. The sole Democrat serving in the House is Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin, first elected in 1982. Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who’s also announced, represented DeKalb County in the House for nine years before being appointed attorney general in 1997.
Georgians have not elected a governor without prior legislative experience in almost 60 years — the last being Herman Talmadge in 1950. Ernest Vandiver and Lester Maddox weren’t legislators, though Vandiver as lieutenant governor presided over the Senate. Maddox was chosen by House Democrats over Republican Bo Callaway in an election thrown there by a 1966 write-in campaign for former Gov. Ellis Arnall.
Both Scott and Porter have an uphill struggle if they are to continue the tradition. Baker is not somebody I’d bet against, though statewide voting patterns favor Republicans.
Scott plans to mount a campaign by raising $100 from 100 people in all 159 counties, he told the hometown Tifton Gazette in announcing. In a race against two opponents who’ll be well-financed and who have already demonstrated they can win statewide — Secretary of State Karen Handel and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine — Scott is a real long shot.
He has some appeal, though. He’s young and photogenic and because he’s not well known and not from metro Atlanta, he could, with sufficient money and the right campaign team and message, emerge as a contender. As politicians go, he’s as reliable as they come. Once he makes a commitment, his word is his bond — even if it turns out to have been unwise.
As chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, he is one of just a handful of free-market conservatives serving on a 2007 task force studying whether to eliminate the archaic Certificate of Need law that preserves health care monopolies. The legislation would pass through his committee. He agreed as a task force member to abide by the majority’s recommendations, in effect surrendering much of his legislative power on the issue. On another occasion, he committed to support the governor’s veto of the 2007 budget, a commitment he honored even though it briefly cost him his chairmanship.
He was the lone elected Republican at the mansion with former Gov. Roy Barnes and other Democrats planning strategy for changing the Georgia flag in 2001. Not surprisingly, his district is never safe, though he has won for 14 years. He’s a long shot, not well known and not secure at home. But there are enough elements to his story to make him a candidate who could gain traction.
Porter has the problem that he and former state Adjutant General David Poythress of Gwinnett County, and possible-candidate Barnes are all competing in a primary where half the voters will be be black. Baker is Georgia’s first black attorney general and, following the historic success of President Barack Obama, there’s likely to be a surge of interest in electing the first black governor.
Barring scandal, any of the Democrats will have a difficult time reaching West Paces Ferry except by tour bus.
The field may be fixed now. If so, it’s likely a 60-year tradition will be broken.