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Look for Lively Political Year After Low-key 2009

SBJ Staff

12/21/2009 - Wait until next year!

That’s the hope of watchers of politics in the region who look forward to some excitement after a ho-hum 2009.
They expect to see a competitive Republican primary in the race for governor with former state Senate President Pro-tem Eric Johnson of Savannah making a run in a crowded field. If he can make it through the primary, his supporters are optimistic about his ultimate chances.

On the local level, Tybee Island provided a break from 2009’s political doldrums with a near-complete turnover of the city council, as four incumbents fell to challengers running on platforms of slower, less-dense development.

Newly seated when the council meets in January will be Shirley Sessions, Kathryn Williams, Bill Garbett and Frank Schuman.  They will join incumbent survivors Paul Wolff and Wanda Doyle.

Gone are Dick Smith, Charlie Brewer, Eddie Crone and Barry Brown.

Johnson resigned from his State Senate seat in time to allow for a special election during the regular November cycle. The race to replace him from District 1 yielded zero excitement as Republican Earl “Buddy” Carter easily beat back token opposition from Democrat Billy Hair, a former Chatham County Commission chairman.

Carter, a pharmacist and former Pooler mayor, gave up his House District 159 seat to run for the Senate.

Ann Purcell, a former state legislator who left the Democratic Party in 2004 to join the GOP and lost her seat to Carter in 2005, won Carter’s old District 159 post.

Johnson just a few years ago hinted at retiring from public life but today finds himself making his first run for statewide office. He’ll get his test in July in a primary that so far includes State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, State Sen. Jeff Chapman, State Rep. Austin Scott and Ray McBerry, a candidate in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.

The Democratic gubernatorial primary field so far includes former Gov. Roy Barnes, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and David Poythress, former commander of the Georgia National Guard, state Secretary of State and state Commissioner of Labor.

Patrick Novotny, a Georgia Southern University political science professor, says he has watched Johnson’s rise in Georgia politics with interest and considers him among the strongest in the GOP primary field.

“I think we are looking at a candidate who probably has some of the best qualifications in terms of experience in actually leading a state chamber in the state Senate,” Novotny said in a recent interview.

He said the business background of Johnson, an architect, would bring a problem-solving perspective uncommon in Georgia politics.

Further, representing Savannah, a global gateway, provided Johnson insights into infrastructure development and economic development that few of the other candidates possess, according to Novotny.

Johnson won election to the state House of Representatives in 1992 and the state Senate in 1994.

Novotny said he thinks Johnson can justifiably describe himself as an experienced outsider.  “I think he can bring some fresh ideas… an outsider perspective,” the GSU professor said.

Johnson represents an “interesting combination” of “inside experience under the Gold Dome but an outsider perspective that is not so beholden to entrenched interests.”

Ben Fry, Johnson’s campaign manager, said his candidate is working every corner of the state to get his name and message in front of voters and to raise the millions of dollars necessary for a statewide campaign.

“We’re going eyeball-to-eyeball to talk about Eric’s vision for Georgia and his proven experience,” Fry said.
He’s not concerned about Savannah’s geographic isolation from the rest of the state.

“One advantage is we’ve got a network of folks. Eric is traveling every day.”

His message will stay the same in the primary and the general election, provided he reaches that point, according to Fry.

It’s the message he’s brought to the Gold Dome for years – lower taxes, removing restraints on business growth, more school choice and more reforms of the state’s civil justice system.

“Eric’s the type of guy who is known for frank talk and telling people how he sees it.” Fry said. “He’s not going to change depending on the election cycle.”

As governor he could be faced with deciding whether to accept federal stimulus dollars and whether to opt out of federal health insurance reform. Fry said Johnson would work with the Obama administration “on things beneficial to Georgia.”

But the candidate at the moment is concerned about the federal government’s reach, about it “owning car companies and taking over health care.”

The question of accepting stimulus money and federal health-care provisions for citizens would be a “matter of looking at each and every instance and whether it would bind our hands.”

In November 2009, former State Sen. Regina Thomas made it official that she intends to challenge Congressman John Barrow, representing the Georgia 12th District, in the Democratic primary next summer. A number of leaders in Savannah’s black community aren’t happy with Barrow’s “Blue Dog” votes on several key Democratic party issues, though he has voted 93 percent of the time with the party, according to political vote tracking by The Washington Post.
One question is whether the fight within the party will create an opening for Republicans, as the 12th just barely skews Democratic.

Thomas has told political media writers that she is looking to make an issue out of Barrow voting for the Stupakhe amendment and against the health-care reform package.

The Stupakhe amendment would have limited funding for abortions if a government-run insurance plan had ended up being included in the health-care reform legislation. Republicans and conservative Democrats insisted that the amendment be included.

The 12th District is 45 percent African-American, with voters in the Democratic primary running as high as 75 percent.

Thomas failed to raise any significant level of funds for the 2008 primary and ran a weak campaign.
As to City of Savannah politics, the field for Savannah mayor is as cloudy as the Savannah River. Names in the forefront include Edna Jackson and Tony Thomas, both of whom have been active with national city management organizations, operating on a larger stage.

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