It's rare to have two candidates as qualified as Brenda Muhammad and Sam Zamarripa running in a state Senate race. (Hell, it would be rare to have two such fine individuals running in a U.S. Senate race, for that matter.)
But the reasons to support each candidate in the Sept. 10 runoff election are very different. Our decision to lean toward Zamarripa comes down to a narrow set of important state issues on which he clearly distinguishes himself from Muhammad, maybe from anyone serving Georgia.
That, of course, is not to say there would be anything wrong with Muhammad's representation of the 36th District. Anyone who could rebound from losing her child to violence to establish a high-profile victim's rights group, and then go on to continue her public service on the Atlanta School Board, has more than proven herself worthy of a seat in the Legislature. Moreover, when she supported charter school advocates in Grant Park, Muhammad showed that she can rise above the racially driven lockstep thinking of some board members. Muhammad diligently tried to represent the wishes of her school district constituents, a group as diverse as Senate District 36.
Muhammad understands many of the issues facing the district, especially in the most impoverished areas. There is no doubt she would advocate for people who often don't have a voice in Georgia's Senate, and she would fight against landfills and argue for better health care standards for Georgians.
However, on the major regional issues -- water, economic development, transportation -- Muhammad still needs to do some homework. Her big ticket answers lacked specificity and tended toward the ambiguous. At this critical time in the state's history, vision and firm direction are necessary.
Zamarripa eloquently articulates just the right mix of imagination and practicality on regional issues. Compared to all the other candidates CL interviewed during the primary season, Zamarripa seemed to be speaking another language. His understanding of regional issues exceeds anyone else's interviewed by the CL editorial board.
The former senior vice president with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce sees Atlanta as a commerce and transportation hub of the Southeastern U.S. and northern Latin America and knows what has to be done to make that happen. Zamarripa understands the importance of forging a statewide water conservation plan.
He also gets the downscale issues that affect poor people, such as gentrification. He proposes a tax deferral program for seniors that would keep the elderly Atlantans in their homes and still guarantee the city its property tax revenue. Zamarripa adds that he's willing to advocate for removing the tax burden from poor Georgians, whose payments make up just a small percentage of the state's revenues.
So how's a progressive freshman state senator supposed to deal with the generally lackluster mob under Georgia's Gold Dome? How will he confront the parochial groups that never seem to tire of running away from innovation in exchange for the short-sighted and mundane?
That's a good question. Zamarripa says the answer is money. Meaning, for example, that the only way to get Republican metro county leaders to cooperate with Georgia's Democrat-dominated Legislature on issues of statewide importance is to show how those issues stand to cause economic benefit or harm. Rather than butt heads, Zamarripa is an advocate for the art of the deal -- win-win solutions for even entrenched foes. The Inman Park businessman has the heady sales acumen that makes you think he might just be able to pull it off.
If elected, Zamarripa, a leader in the state's Latino community, may put off other legislators if he doesn't go it slow and humble on occasion. He should also reach out to the neighborhoods in which he's had very little election support to prove he's willing to listen to their interests above those of the corporations with which he's used to dealing.
If Zamarripa can do that, he could become a superstar, and the Senate may just be a stop in a long political career.