WARNER ROBINS -- When political newcomer Heath Clark decided to take on an entrenched incumbent for a seat in the General Assembly, not many people gave him a chance.
Clark took an old-school approach to his race against Rep. Willie Talton in the Republican primary and beat the popular nine-year incumbent 1,544 to 1,339.
“I attribute it to a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” he said Wednesday. “We had a lot of people go out and canvas neighborhoods and knock on doors and introduced ourselves. I think that impressed a lot of voters that a candidate was going door-to-door like that.”
Clark estimated he spent about $12,000 on the race for the House District 147 seat, which represents part of north Houston County. No Democrats qualified, so Clark will take office in January. He said he will be plenty busy before then meeting with elected officials.
“I’m going to work hard to build good working relationships with the other state legislators in the area,” he said.
Talton, a longtime law enforcement officer before he entered politics, seemed to take the loss in stride.
“The people have spoken,” he said. “I thank the people who gave me the opportunity to serve, and hope I have made a difference.”
Clark, 33, is a software engineer working at Robins Air Force Base for Standard Technology. He had never run for a political office.
“I don’t know if anybody took me seriously until toward the end,” he said. “You drove through neighborhoods and saw my signs out there and people starting taking notice.”
In 2004, Talton became the first black Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly. With his defeat, there are no black Republicans in the Legislature. He was originally elected without opposition and has twice faced Democratic opposition. This was his first opposition from a Republican.
The 16 percent voter turnout probably helped Clark win, said Chris Grant, associate professor of political science at Mercer University and a student of Georgia politics.
“This is really low turnout. It’s not hard to get a thousand people to vote for you” just by tapping personal networks, like friends, colleagues and fellow school alumni, he said.
The next thousands of votes become harder and harder to get, and then incumbent name recognition starts to be a factor.
“If there was a big turnout, Talton may have won,” Grant said. As it is, “Talton didn’t see himself as vulnerable.” Clark “snuck up on him.”
Talton denied that he didn’t take Clark seriously.
“When you have opposition, you always take it seriously,” he said.
Clark said his campaign themes focused on Republican values and his belief that the state government focuses too much attention on metro Atlanta at the expense of the rest of the state. He criticized the state for spending money to build a $17 million parking deck for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium while furloughing teachers.
Eddie Causey, chairman of the Houston County Republican Party, said while many people like to bash incumbents, they generally tend to favor them when they vote.
“It’s always a surprise when an incumbent gets beat, I suppose,” Causey said.
He said both men are “fine people,” and Talton did a good job during his time in office.
“I’m confident Heath Clark will do a good job too,” he said.
Staff writer Maggie Lee contributed to this report. To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.