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Georgia faces a generational choice in politics

Posted: November 13, 2013 - 12:04am

Whether he wins or loses – and he’s a huge underdog at this point – state Sen. Jason Carter brings something worthwhile to next year’s race for governor: He will give voters a real choice in which direction they want the state to take.

Carter’s decision to challenge incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal brings us one of those moments when you can feel the beginnings of a changeover from one generation to another. The tectonic plates of state politics are shifting.

In terms of age, there’s a stark contrast between the two candidates. Carter will be 39 when the general election campaign commences. Deal will be 72, nearly twice the age of his challenger. When Deal was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 1980, Carter was a five-year-old kid who hadn’t even started the first grade.

Carter will be criticized for his youthfulness, but he noted: “Richard Russell was 33 when he first took office, Ellis Arnall was 35, Herman Talmadge was 33, Carl Sanders was 37 when he became governor. Those are giants in Georgia politics.”

It is on the issues, however, where you see the major differences.

Deal is part of a Republican establishment that has controlled state government for more than a decade. That leadership believes the most important thing they can do is cut taxes and provide financial incentives for businesses and corporate executives.

Those benefits to the business community have been financed by cutting billions of dollars in funding for public schools and by limiting the money spent on highways, infrastructure and public safety.

We can now boast of being a state where many schools can’t afford to keep their doors open 180 days a year – but where we are spending tax funds to build a football stadium for a billionaire NFL owner.

Deal’s priorities will be extensively discussed in his own Republican primary. Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state school Supt. John Barge should provide some thoughtful alternatives on how the state could address its economic development and education shortcomings.

Carter, in his two terms as a Democratic lawmaker, has already confronted Deal several times over the issues of K-12 school funding and how best to allocate the money available for HOPE scholarships to college students. That debate will now be carried over into the general election campaign for governor, and that’s a healthy development for voters.

“You really have folks out there who don’t feel connected, and who don’t see the Georgia they want to see right now,” Carter said last week after filing the paperwork for his campaign. “I know that we can do better and the question then becomes, can we afford to wait? And the answer for me is, no.”

“We want a Georgia that’s at its best,” he said. “And Georgia at its best invests in education, it doesn’t cut billions out of the classrooms. It has an economy that works for the middle class and it always has an honest government.”

If that theme sounds familiar, it should. Carter’s grandfather, Jimmy, used the slogan “Why not the best?” when he ran for president nearly 40 years ago.

Unlike other legislators who have quit the General Assembly when they decided to run for Congress, Carter intends to serve out his current term in the Senate.

“I got elected to do that job,” he said. “My political consultants and my finance folks have said, ‘You should raise money for your campaign,’ but this is the job I was elected to do. The issues that we are going to confront in the legislature are exactly the issues we are going to confront when I am running for governor.”

Carter brings national attention to the governor’s race because of his famous grandfather, just as Michelle Nunn sparks interest in the U.S. Senate race because of her well-known father, retired senator Sam Nunn.

There’s little doubt he will get plenty of political advice from grandparents Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as he makes his first try at statewide office.

“It’s important for people to know this is not a campaign about Jimmy Carter, it’s a campaign about what is best for Georgia,” Carter said.

“But if you think that can keep them from offering advice, you don’t know them very well.”

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.)

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