Houston & Peach

Republicans fry fish in Houston, Democrats answer questions in Peach

PERRY — With a Republican fish-fry in Perry and a Democratic panel discussion in Fort Valley on Saturday, it’s a good bet that Georgia’s next governor had lunch in Middle Georgia Saturday.

The big question is: Was that person in Peach or Houston county?

In Houston County, a warehouse full of Republicans mowed through 360 pounds of catfish and 20 boxes of hush puppies at Gov. Sonny Perdue’s sixth annual fish fry at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry.

In Peach County, the Democrats gathered for lunch at Fort Valley State University, then put their candidates on stage for a question-and-answer session that felt very much like a mid-season campaign debate.

The primaries are nearly 10 months away, but the hard-core politicos are deep into the governor’s race. Some have chosen sides, while others are keeping their powder dry, wondering whether crowded fields on both sides of the ballot will thin out before election day nears.

For the Republicans, north Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal, Secretary of State Karen Handel, Savannah-area state Sen. Eric Johnson, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and Tifton state Rep. Austin Scott were working the room on Saturday in pursuit of the governor’s mansion.

Their teams spread campaign literature on just about every flat surface. There was a nervous energy in the air, as if the candidates’ collective I-hope-everyone-likes-me vibe infused the event.

The candidates gave brief, basic stump speeches, largely avoided making news and put on a smile for everyone they met.

“My ancestors came on the second boat load with Oglethorpe,” Deal told the crowd, referring to Georgia founder James Oglethorpe. “I want to be a part of carrying on a great tradition.”

The Democrats’ affair took on a more formal feel, and candidates sat together at a table to answer questions from an audience of more than 150 people. They blamed Republicans a lot and promised more funding for education, a better mental health care system, more state contracts for minority businesses and a better partnership between state and local governments.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker, former Gov. Roy Barnes, Ray City Mayor Carl Camon, Dublin state Rep. DuBose Porter and retired Gen. David Poythress all attended. Barnes, the presumed front-runner, promised the crowd he’d restore a state-funded property tax break, push water conservation, lower public school class sizes, fund commuter rail and build reservoirs in north Georgia.

Asked later how he planned to pay for all that, Barnes said it wouldn’t take a tax increase on regular Georgians.

Instead he wants to wipe out tax exemptions for special interests.

There are more than 100 of those on state books. They allow the Georgia Aquarium to expand without paying sales taxes on construction materials, and Delta Air Lines to save on jet fuel costs, just to name two.

“I am going to cut off all the special interest tax cuts,” Barnes said.

Though the Republican gathering was more laid back — several people dressed up in straw hats and overalls — there were still some policy discussions.

Oxendine promised to pursue the elimination of state income taxes, moving Georgia closer to the “Fair Tax” system he also favors at the national level.

Scott, who finished a 1,000-mile walk across parts of the state earlier in the day, said he was ready for debates, and proposed a series of 10 meetings between the candidates.

But all that was secondary. It was a day for renewing political connections in Middle Georgia, eating deep fried food and swatting away the gnats.

“So much of politics focuses on Atlanta,” Johnson said. “It’s great to have something in Middle Georgia.”

Whether any of this translates to the general public paying attention to such a crowded governor’s race so far ahead of election day remains to be seen.

Darrell Edge, who cooked the catfish for Republicans on Saturday, said it’s awful early.

“Sonny,” he said when asked who he’d like to see win the governor’s office next year. Then he laughed.

“I don’t know enough about ’em yet,” he said. “It’s early. Just met the Johnson fellow, and Oxendine. But it will be a Republican.”

To contact writer Travis Fain call 744-4213.