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Perdue: The only sensible GOP choice to take on Barnes

Republicans have their demon for the 2002 elections: It's "King" Roy Barnes, whom they view more as a ruthless dictator than Georgia's incumbent governor.
Unfortunately, no GOP heavy hitters volunteered to challenge Barnes' re-election. Still, one of the three legitimate candidates easily outclasses the other two.

A veterinarian, farmer and businessman from Middle Georgia, Sonny Perdue quickly established himself as a bright light in the state Senate when he was elected as a Democrat in 1990. He understood both the inside game of good ol' boys and the modern impulse to reform. He also had the intellectual capacity to juggle complex issues. By 1995, he was Senate majority leader.

Then, in a move viewed alternatively as principled and opportunistic, Perdue switched to the Republican Party. He was stripped of his leadership position and became a harsh critic of Democrats. An expected Republican Senate majority never materialized, but Perdue's wits made him a formidable force in the General Assembly.

Perdue's Achilles heel is his tie to a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. Before he switched parties, he authored the 1997 bill to deregulate Georgia's natural gas industry, which opened the door for billing fiascos, undependable service and skyrocketing prices.

In a tougher field, the natural gas bill might destroy Perdue's chances. Lucky then that his top GOP foes are horrendously unqualified. The frequent question in political circles isn't just whether Linda Schrenko or Bill Byrne can offer Barnes serious opposition -- it's also whether or not both are crazy.

The best known of the three Republicans is Schrenko, the state school superintendent. Her chief reason for running seems that she hates Barnes. Nothing in Schrenko's record indicates she could run the state, although there are plenty of reasons to think the Capitol under her leadership would be very entertaining.

Schrenko was elected on a fluke in 1994, when high GOP turnout swept Republicans into many offices. She barely won re-election in 1998. Two appearances on a statewide ballot and eight years in office have given her one asset: name recognition.

But it's the kind of name recognition usually reserved for a professional wrestler. Voters know Schrenko's the school superintendent. But they also know of her frequent spats with Department of Education board members. Or they remember that she was dragged kicking and screaming through Barnes' education reforms. Or her penchant for giving state jobs to unqualified cronies. Or her childish decision not to speak to teachers' groups because she thought teachers tended to be Democrats. Or last winter's profligate use of state-owned aircraft as a campaign vehicle.

And then there are Schrenko's violations of election finance laws. Most recently, she unsuccessfully sued the State Ethics Commission on the ludicrous contention that a $500,000 loan offered on favorable terms didn't amount to a campaign contribution.

It's hard to see how Schrenko even has a message to offer Georgia voters through such a haze of controversy. After outmaneuvering her on education reform (and everything else), Barnes allies relish taking on the superintendent in the General Election. She is a Washington General to Barnes' Harlem Globetrotter -- the hapless foe who keeps coming back to be clobbered anew.

At least Byrne can point to significant achievements. In 10 years as Cobb County Commission chairman, his biggest administrative mistake lay in committing the county to a slipshod composting plant that was consumed by fire.

But Cobb thrived in the Byrne years: Property taxes dropped, greenspace expanded and the infrastructure improved. He was lucky to govern one of Georgia's most prosperous counties through some very fat times, but he also deserves credit for avoiding pitfalls.

On the campaign trail, Byrne is preaching what he practiced: He paid for big projects without borrowing, and his more conservative fiscal philosophy is worth debating in light of Barnes' ongoing bond sales for the $2.2 billion Northern Arc. A former landscape planner and the only Republican candidate from the metro area, Byrne also has a grasp on the region's growth and transportation problems.

But Byrne has no idea how to develop his record as a county official into a convincing case that he should be governor. When asked how he'd adjust his style to the far more complex issues facing the governor, Byrne simply suggests other counties "become more like Cobb."

Now, imagine the circumstances under which, say, Quitman County could solve its poverty by magically luring thousands of educated, upscale new residents to commute 150 miles to Atlanta. It's even harder to envision Quitman County -- a sweltering pineland, pitted with fallow farms, on the edge of Lower Alabama -- sprouting vast cookie-cutter subdivisions to bolster the tax digest.

What is this guy thinking? When you're running the state's wealthiest county and one of its fastest growing, you can figure out how to keep taxes low. Perdue notes, with just a tad of overstatement, that Byrne has operated a government on "cruise control."

The more pressing question about Byrne involves temperament. He is famous for easy descent into the kind of angry, personalized politics that represent American democracy at its nadir.

That was evident when he helped lead the commission's gratuitous swipes at gays just before the Olympics. And it was evident when he threatened to beat up Marietta Daily Journal owner Otis Brumby.

The buck doesn't stop at Byrne's desk. He generously faults others for his own failures. Regarding a State Ethics Commission decision to fine him for campaign finance violations, Byrne declares, "It's a corrupt system!"

After transportation consultants improved upon two of Byrne's ideas for train service to Cobb -- but didn't manage to acquire federal grants -- he offers a rather sweeping evaluation.

"They fucked it up," he roars to CL's editorial board.

Byrne can't even restrain his self-serving vitriol when talking about fellow Republicans. Once he gets going on Perdue, he erupts: "This guy's a joke. He's an embarrassment. If he's our nominee, we should keep what we've got."

Byrne is a tough and energetic man. If a rabid wolverine is lodged under the floorboards of your house, he's the guy you should call to shimmy through the crawl space and jab the beast out of there. But it's hard to see a guy like this navigating the Capitol's multiple power bases. It's easy to see him butting heads with the substantial egos in the General Assembly.

Given the alternatives, it's not surprising GOP insiders see Perdue as their best hope. While Perdue has a tendency to talk like an insider, his down-home delivery may be precisely the style to push a fairly compelling message: That "King Roy" has wielded power arrogantly; that he's built redundant bureaucracies just so he could get his way; that his ambitious road and school building will saddle future generations with higher debt payments; that his henchmen punish foes and friends alike for less than 100 percent loyalty.

Our chief concern about Perdue is his thin understanding of the growth issues facing metro Atlanta. For example, he's signaled that he'd move slowly, if at all, on rail solutions to "congestion" -- apparently unaware that much of the brouhaha about sprawl is tied to the destruction of neighborhoods and the fact that air pollution is a health issue for tens of thousands of people.

Perdue's most heralded perscription for traffic is to encourage state workers to telecommute, a great idea, but not one that would slow the region's ongoing sprawl.

He declares his election-year opposition to the Northern Arc "firm." But he never opposed the Northern Arc in the Senate and leaves open a door to build it under the right circumstances.

Perdue could be vulnerable to claims that he doesn't understand the new Georgia. He advocates a referendum on the new state flag. That may sound good to Old South voters. But most folks -- however they felt about the old flag -- seem to understand that Barnes did well to get us past that issue.

Claims that Perdue is responsible for the natural gas mess could resonate in the Republican primary (although it's difficult to believe that self-described conservatives like Schrenko and Byrne would have opposed the deregulation scheme).

But Perdue makes a compelling case that such arguments could backfire in the General Election. After all, he sponsored the bill as a Democrat, and it passed both chambers by unanimous votes, including the vote of then-Rep. Roy Barnes. Perdue lays blame for the natural gas fiasco at the feet of the governor, who he says should have tweaked the original bill long before last winter.

"We provided a model with safeguards in the law," Perdue says of his bill. "Unfortunately, it has been implemented shamefully. Why did Barnes wait until an election year" to fix its flaws?

He sounds like a guy who's prepared to take on a sitting governor.

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