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Our pick for governor: Roy Barnes

We'd prefer the Barnes of a decade ago, but the new Roy is still Georgia's best hope.

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Um, because this is the guy who runs the show, who represents Georgia to the world, who gets to shack up in that big white house on West Paces Ferry Road (can you say dinner party???), and who's tasked with spending our money like it's his money. OK, so the job may seem much diminished after eight years of Sonny Perdue's do-little leadership, but it's plenty important considering the challenges facing Georgia: free-falling state revenues, shrinking water resources, crummy schools, and a growing reputation for ass-backwardness that rivals Alabama.

THE LOWDOWN: Why is this even a contest anymore? Oh, yeah, because there are many hardcore Republicans who'd rather elect a rabid polecat than see a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion. But even if ex-Congressman Nathan Deal weren't the ethical cesspool he now appears to be, there would still be plenty of reasons to welcome back old Roy.

Speaking of old Roy, we're especially partial to the Roy Barnes who, back in the late '90s, had the guts to strip the Confederate battle emblem from our state flag, pushed for meaningful education reform and envisioned a regional transportation network that balanced roads with transit and commuter rail. Unfortunately, as we all know, ditching racially insensitive state-sponsored symbols, holding teachers accountable and standing up for the most rudimentary public transportation turned out to be too much progress for Georgia to handle.

The old Roy is still in there, but you have to dig a little. To avoid taking more lumps at the polls and to quell the concerns of conservative voters, the former governor is returning from political exile a more cautious and calculating candidate, one who's willing to pander to red-staters on a hot-button issue like immigration. It pains us to hear him say he'd support "an Arizona-type law," even though we suspect it's simply campaign-trail rhetoric — he stipulates that such a law would need to protect constitutional liberties, which, as one of Georgia's top lawyers, he knows can't be done.

(Deal's right-wing pander, on the other hand, involved flirting with the birthers by sending President Obama a letter demanding to see his birth certificate.)

Hey, if anyone has the vision, smarts and experience to pull Georgia out of its current slump, it's Barnes — which is why he's returned to politics. Unlike Deal, as the joke goes, he doesn't need the job to keep a roof over his head.

After eight years of education cuts under Republican rule, for instance, Barnes promises to end teacher furloughs and reduce class sizes. It's noteworthy that teachers, who helped oust him from office after his first term, now welcome Barnes back as the savior of Georgia schools.

The former governor also recognizes that the tax exemptions GOP lawmakers handed out like candy to business chums have undercut state finances; he says he'd selectively eliminate many of these sweetheart tax breaks to help stem the tide of red ink.

How do we know he'll do what he says he'd do? Because Barnes has always been the guy who gets shit done. If you assume Barnes is simply another politician, think again. He casts himself as a small-town lawyer, but he's easily the smartest, most visionary, most progressive and most energetic governor Georgia's had in our lifetimes. He's the rare policy wonk who can be informative, persuasive and folksy all at once. The same Republican pols who mockingly call him "King Roy" secretly envy his intellect, gift of gab and political skills.

And if Barnes' professed stance on immigration is a turn-off, remember that Deal authored the House bill to repeal the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to babies born in the U.S.

But even if you don't know or care anything about public policy, there's a vast difference between Barnes and Deal in terms of integrity. To some, the former governor came across as imperious and even arrogant during his first go-around, but he's never been credibly accused of using his office to line his own pockets.

Deal, on the other hand, jumped ship from Congress while under investigation for allegedly trying to browbeat state officials into maintaining a lucrative, no-bid state contract for his auto-salvage business. He also failed to disclose a $2.8 million business loan in violation of House ethics rules, claiming that he, a man reportedly teetering on the brink of personal bankruptcy, had forgotten he'd borrowed the money. And Deal's reported funneling of more than $245,000 in taxpayer money to the wife of his then-Congressional aide (now campaign manager) is simply the most recent in a string of scuzzy revelations.

Deal's ethical lapses are so extreme that a number of prominent Republicans, including top GOP strategist Tom Perdue (no relation to Sonny) and CNN pundit Erick Erickson, have called for Deal to step aside so as not to bring further shame to the party.

Even if you're willing to give Deal's flexible ethics the benefit of a doubt, it's difficult to deny he's seriously inept when it comes to financial matters. He invested $2 million in a retail business owned by his daughter and son-in-law, then doubled down by co-signing another $2.3 million or so in loans for the failing venture. Then, after it was revealed in September that Deal was a candidate for the poor house — he neglected to mention his financial woes before the GOP primary, oopsie! — he filed a new disclosure upgrading his personal wealth by $2 million.

This is a guy who's asking to be placed in charge of the state's finances, who's touting his "Real Prosperity Plan" for Georgia, and he can't manage his own money.

Deal. Really?

And yet polls continue to show Deal in the lead. Holy shit, people, we're better than this!

There is one major hurdle that Barnes will have a hard time clearing in his attempt to woo GOP voters. We can only assume that many centrist Republican voters who might otherwise appreciate Barnes are deterred by next year's statewide reapportionment, when Georgia is expected to get at least two new Congressional districts. The governor will oversee reapportionment — just as Barnes did a decade ago. In a particularly egregious episode of overreaching, then-Gov. Barnes rammed through a gerrymandered redistricting plan that helped justify all subsequent GOP reversals. Even if Roy hadn't learned from that debacle, the Republican-controlled statehouse wouldn't allow a repeat.

But Barnes, ever the political strategist, says he'd be willing to give up his role in reapportionment in favor of an independent board. Would the GOP be cool with that? Hmmm.

If Georgians are willing to put partisanship aside and simply vote in their best interest for the candidate with outstanding experience, vision and strength of character, Barnes is the obvious choice. If they want to end up with a jumbled mess of blatant self-interest and fiscal mismanagement, they'll get what they asked for with Deal.

THE OUTLOOK: Hey, your guess is as good as ours, but we like to think Georgians are smarter than the polls indicate.

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