Secretary of State Karen Handel will not be intervening in the election dispute between Republican District 5 commission candidate Tim Fleming and his Democratic opponent, Randy Vinson.Vinson’s campaign had written to Handel requesting she make a ruling on the qualifications of Fleming to run for office in the district. The Vinson campaign is challenging Fleming’s eligibility on the grounds he has a homestead exemption for a house outside of District 5.
Matt Carrothers, director of media relations for the secretary of state’s office, said Handel had reviewed the request by the Vinson campaign and decided to not involve herself in the dispute.
"The Secretary of State’s office does not have jurisdiction over residency challenges regarding county commission candidates and will not be taking further action on this matter," Carrothers said.
The Vinson campaign had held out hope that she would be sympathetic to their case against Fleming because of Handel’s well publicized opposition to the eligibility of Public Service Commission candidate Jim Powell to run for office based on a homestead exemption he had for a home outside of the state district for which he was campaigning.
Fleming reiterated what his campaign has said since the question of his qualifications to run for office was first raised weeks ago - that it was a "non-issue."
"I am qualified to stand for District 5 Board of Commissioners since day one of this campaign," Fleming said. "It’s really a sad state that Randy Vinson and [campaign manager] Paul Oeland have tried to circumvent the election by trying to take this away from the voters of District 5. In my opinion, it’s nothing but dirty politics."
Oeland said he was disappointed with Handel’s decision not to intervene, especially considering how publicly vehement she has been that Powell’s homestead exemption should preclude him from running for office.
"She’s the chief elections official of the state and the chairperson of the state
Board of Elections [which] by its own mandate says it can investigate local elections and promulgate rules to make sure the fair implementation of the state’s election laws."
He said the Vinson campaign does not plan to pursue the matter further and will not be filing an elections appeal with the Newton County Superior Court.
"It’s a unique situation and I just don’t think there is another avenue of appeal," Oeland said. "It’s clearly up now to the voters of the fifth district."
Oeland disputed Fleming’s characterizations of his and Vinson’s actions.
"This notion that Mr. Fleming continues to put forward that the basic qualification of residency is somehow dirty politics and mud slinging is just beyond me," Oeland said. "I just continue to be disappointed to see him questioning, what we think is a fundamental qualification for candidacy, as dirty tricks is disappointing."
Two weeks ago the Newton County Board of Elections ruled by a default vote to uphold Fleming’s candidacy. The normally three-member board was decreased to two to vote on Fleming’s candidacy when nonpartisan board member Hugh Steele recused himself from voting on account of a campaign contribution he had made to Fleming.
The Democratic board member voted to disqualify Fleming and the Republican board member voted to uphold his candidacy. As a result they came to a draw. On the grounds of the unclear BOE ruling, the Vinson campaign decided to appeal to the secretary of state for help.
Handel, a Republican, had previously ruled that Powell, who is a Democrat, was ineligible to run for the Public Service Commission only to have her decision overruled by the Fulton County Superior Court in time for Powell to win his district’s primary. She has since appealed the lower court’s decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Oeland said the circumstances of Handel and Fleming’s identical party affiliation had not escaped notice of the Vinson campaign.
"It certainly has not escaped our attention that Mr. Fleming has the stated support of the lieutenant governor and of various elected officials on the state and national level," Oeland said. "It’s pure speculation but it is an interesting question, whether if the tables were turned and it was a Republican asking her to get involved to review a Democrat’s residency, whether she would get involved."
Handel has stated that if a homestead exemption has been filed, the address for which the exemption is claimed shall be viewed as the person’s residence for the purposes of standing for elections.
In the city of Porterdale last fall, city council candidate, Gigi Shinall, was disqualified from running for office by the Porterdale elections superintendent on account of a homestead exemption she had for a house located outside of the city limits even though she had physically resided in the city for a year.