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Posted: May 13, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Kindred parties

The red, white and blue Republican elephant logo adorns the cover of this week’s Time magazine, with this headline: "Endangered Species." Inside, the Time header asks, "Is the Party Over?" The story goes on to say, "Lacking leadership and fresh ideas, the GOP has officially entered the political wilderness. It could take years to find the way back."

Time could have swapped the elephant for a donkey and carried the same message about Georgia’s Democrats, who can’t seem to secure a seat on the Obama bandwagon. This is especially true of the Democrats in the General Assembly, who have missed numerous candidate recruiting opportunities. Like their national Republican counterparts, the Georgia Democrats haven’t found a coherent or consistent voice as the minority legislative opposition. If, as Time says, the national GOP is wandering aimlessly in the national political wilderness, then the Georgia Democrats are stumbling blindly through one of our impenetrable swamps.

One factor bringing Georgia politics and national politics together: Republican candidates seem to be taking steps to distance themselves from their leader. In 2008, much time and effort was spent by Democrats trashing President Bush (still going on), and Republicans doing so as well. Likewise, some Republican gubernatorial candidates seem to be going out of their way to put a lot of room between themselves and Gov. Sonny Perdue. They apparently worry that Perdue’s negative ratings may rub off on them. A recent Survey USA poll showed that 49 percent of Georgians disapproved of Perdue’s performance as governor, compared to 46 percent who approved.

Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine has been the most aggressive Republican candidate in separating himself from the governor. Oxendine derides Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel as Perdue’s chosen successor. Speaking recently in Effingham County, Oxendine despaired at the failures in Georgia education and laid the blame on its governors … including Perdue.

"[George] Busbee said he was the education governor in Georgia," Oxendine noted. "Then [Joe Frank] Harris said he was the education governor in Georgia. Then [Zell] Miller said he was the education governor in Georgia. Then [Roy] Barnes said he was the education governor. Now Perdue says he’s the education governor. Every one of them has promised to fix education as governor." But Georgia education remains a mess, the Ox added as he burned all his gubernatorial bridges.

Oxendine is not alone among candidates taking a swipe at Perdue. Regarded by some as the early front-runner for governor, Secretary of State Karen Handel recently took a critical shot at the governor.

"In the area of transportation, I’m as disappointed as anyone about the lack of progress there, and believe we should have seen more aggressiveness and assertiveness around that issue," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution even as she praised Perdue for his prudent handling of the state budget.

Another leading candidate for governor, state Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, has to be upset with Perdue because of the state’s failure to fund adequately Johnson’s pet program: vouchers for special-needs kids. According to Johnson private schools are getting stiffed to the tune of millions of dollars.

In public appearances and media interviews, Handel and Johnson go to great lengths to point to how there are ex-Perdue staffers on the other candidates’ staff.

However, Perdue and Oxendine are kindred souls in one political area: campaign finance problems. Perdue is the only governor in the state’s history to have been fined by the state’s ethics commission. The commission said he mishandled his reporting on campaign finances. Sunday’s AJC reported extensively on Oxendine taking $120,000 from what appear to be insurance interests. As insurance commissioner, Oxendine regulates Georgia’s insurance and small-loan industries.

The candidates’ distancing from Perdue may just be a warm-up for tackling a significant ethics scandal — yes, another one — that is just over the horizon. Senate Judiciary Chairman Preston Smith, former Perdue floor leader and fair-haired boy of the religious right, is going through a nasty divorce involving (what else?) marital infidelity. He may not be able to follow some of his scandalized colleagues and shrug off the lawsuit as irrelevant to his duties.

Among the allegations against Smith: A relationship with a subordinate state employee. According to a deposition in the case, "the other woman" worked for his campaign and then for the Senate. The Senate Ethics Committee and/or Senate Committee on Administration should have jurisdiction over this. It’s a violation of Management 101, if not Senate rules. One wonders what brave soul would initiate an unethical conduct action against Sen. Smith.

Some insiders say a move may be made in the Senate to strip Smith of his chairmanship and perhaps take other disciplinary action. Republican leaders are not eager to let yet another ethics complaint against a big-name state lawmaker go unanswered.

But don’t look for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to play any leading role in a GOP housecleaning. Remember, Cagle had to drop out of the governor’s race because he hurt his back.

 

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.

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