Fulton County received a mid-year jolt when longtime south Fulton Commissioner Michael Hightower admitted in June to taking $25,000 in bribes from a county contractor after federal investigators came knocking. He reported to a Florida prison camp in December to begin a six-month prison sentence. The feds also collared Josh Kenyon, chief of staff for both Chairman Mike Kenn and his predecessor, Mitch Skandalakis, for accepting a $14,000 payoff.
Skandalakis, who had stayed in the public eye since losing the lieutenant governor's race via a weekly radio talk show and leading the Milton County secessionist movement, vanished from the local scene in early summer when he became an acknowledged subject of the ongoing federal corruption probe. He hasn't been spotted in his home county since.
Politics rarely get more outrageous than in Forsyth County, where voters cleaned house after weathering an embarrassing four years of name-calling, illegal investigations, conviction-less indictments, accusations and lawsuits between county commissioners and Sheriff Denny Hendrix. When the dust settled in the primaries, the embattled commision incumbents had been tossed out, including Chairman Bill Jenkins and commissioners Andy Anderson and Julian Bowen, who lost a state Senate bid. The once-popular Hendrix was trounced in a runoff and his office remains under a GBI investigation for suspected payroll fraud.
But even lame-duck pols can still provide a great sideshow. Hendrix announced in November his intent to sue Bowen for slander for referring to him a "damn nut" during a public meeting.
Several races in the Topside had all the trappings of a political soap opera.
It was a year when the Republican dominance of the area was tested in several ways. Former State Rep. Randy Sauder of Smyrna stunned the GOP establishment with his last-minute party switch, while U.S. Rep. Bob Barr faced a tough fight to hold onto his seat in Washington.
Sauder, the incumbent for the District 29 House seat, switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic minutes before the end of the qualifying period. Political observers speculated that Sauder made the move to appeal to the district's increasing numbers of Latinos and African-Americans. But he lost the House seat to Ginger Collins, a Republican-backed conservative who ran as an independent and won 73 percent of the votes.
Republican Bob Barr, congressman for Georgia's Seventh District, made headlines early in the year as he pushed for the impeachment of President Clinton. In his race for re-election, Barr narrowly squeaked by well-heeled Democratic challenger Roger Kahn after a campaign full of mudslinging TV commercials. When all the ballots were counted, Barr won 54 percent of the votes to Kahn's 46 percent.
While Florida bickered over butterfly ballots and recounts, Cobb County held its own, less publicized recount. The race for the District 32 House seat came out in the too-close-to-call column, with Republican incumbent Judy Manning of Marietta garnering just 12 more votes than Democrat Pat Dooley. Manning picked up more votes in the recount to win by a margin of 19 votes.
As he stays busy updating his vanity website, www.newt.org, and hitting the talking-head circuit, Newt Gingrich may still have some influence on Georgia politics. Marietta Republican George Grindley lost his District 35 House seat to Democrat Terry Johnson by a mere 217 votes, a defeat some pundits ascribed to the incumbent's avid support for the fallen Speaker of the House. In any case, Grindley proved to be a sore loser. He promptly filed a lawsuit challenging the election results, claiming that people who had moved out of the district were allowed to vote in the election. He dropped his case less than a month later.
With all the confusion this political season, it's no wonder Secretary of State Cathy Cox is pushing for new and improved voting machines. Fulton County, the most populous county in the state, plans to adopt a new system with optical scanners already in use in Cherokee, Douglas, Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
The striking political changes in the Topside come as the area undergoes rapid residential and commercial growth. In Alpharetta, business boosters cheered the ongoing emergence of Windward Parkway as a high-tech corridor. The office parks lining the thoroughfare house workers for E*Trade, IBM, Nortel Networks and others, leading one techie to dub the area "Silicon Valley in the heart of Dixie."
But, as always, rapid growth comes with a down side. So many Atlanta commuters now drive to work in far north Fulton that traffic jams have become common in both directions on Ga. 400.