April 26 is what I call "put up or shut up time" in state politics, because it's the date when candidate qualifying begins for the July 20 primary elections. As the official start of the 2010 election season gets closer, let's look at some of the questions hanging over Georgia politics.
How badly was gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal hurt by a congressional ethics investigation into a lucrative arrangement between his car salvage company and state government?
Deal probably suffered substantial damage from the report compiled by the Office of Congressional Ethics that reviewed the details of his business transactions and concluded the recently resigned congressman may have violated House ethics rules.
The man from Gainesville keeps saying over and over, "I have done nothing wrong," and insists that he is not going to be forced out of the governor's race.
I think Deal completely misses the point here. It's true that the House cannot punish him because he's no longer a member of Congress, and I doubt that anybody is going to jail over this, but the ethics report is still very damaging.
House investigators confirmed earlier media accounts that Deal used his congressional staffers and his political friendship with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to try to pressure the state's revenue commissioner to continue sending business to Deal's car salvage shop.
That is not something a member of Congress should be doing, and it leaves Deal open to criticism that he tried to use the influence of his office to benefit himself. In a state where you've already had scandals and ethical misconduct ripping through the leadership of the General Assembly, you don't want to have that hanging over your campaign.
Cagle got dinged a little by the same ethics report, which said he declined a request from congressional investigators to sit down for an interview about the Deal incident. The report recommended that a subpoena be issued for the lieutenant governor.
What about Thurbert Baker?
On the Democratic side of the governor's race, Attorney General Baker got a campaign boost last week from state Rep. Mark Hatfield's introduction of an impeachment resolution seeking Baker's removal from office.
The impeachment threat, which stemmed from Baker's refusal to sue the federal government over the new healthcare reform law, provided valuable TV exposure for Baker and raised his political profile accordingly. It made him a hero to Democratic Party activists, which could help him in the primary election against former governor Roy Barnes.
The attack by Republican lawmakers on Baker, the first African-American to be elected attorney general in Georgia, could also generate higher turnout from black voters in November, similar to 2008 when they came to the polls in record numbers to vote for Barack Obama. That turnout among black voters could end up hurting GOP legislative candidates in competitive districts.
What will Thurmond do?
Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond has toyed with the idea of running for lieutenant governor for several months now, but has still not announced whether he will actually run for that office or not.
Thurmond's silence has already drawn one Democratic candidate into the race for the state's second highest office: Carol Porter, a Dublin newspaper executive and the wife of gubernatorial candidate DuBose Porter.
"I wasn't thinking about it two weeks ago," Porter said when she announced her candidacy in late February. "But nobody would get into the race."
Thurmond is an eloquent campaigner who's already won three statewide races for labor commissioner and would be a very credible candidate for lieutenant governor.
If U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who's now been hospitalized twice in a two-week period, turns out to have health issues that prevent him from running for another term, Thurmond would also be a strong contender for that seat.
The issue with Thurmond, as always, lies in getting him to make a decision. He has become the Hamlet of state politics, always sitting back and mulling the options available to him, but never taking that final leap to action.
If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Thurmond staying home and running for a fourth term as labor commissioner. We'll find out for sure during the week of April 26.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)
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