ATLANTA -- Fear not political junkies despairing over the lack of campaign activity in Georgia because an issue is bringing life to your fall.
President Barack Obama’s campaign had once promised to devote time and resources to the Peach State before backtracking when he fell in the polls in some battleground states. As a result, Georgia’s status as solidly Republican means Mitt Romney won’t have to campaign here either, although they may both return to refill their coffers at private fundraisers.
The slate of homegrown races offers little in the way of fireworks, too. This year has no governor or senator on the ballot. The only statewide contests are for the Public Service Commission where candidates rarely raise as much money as a serious legislative match and certainly too little for statewide television.
While both commission incumbents, Republicans Stan Wise and Chuck Eaton, face challengers, the absence of TV advertising tends to leave political editors, reader commenters and the average gadfly uninterested. Besides, the fact that incumbents historically win re-election more than 95 percent of the time suggests that Wise and Eaton are unlikely to be deposed.
So, a lowly ballot question is providing most of the fun for the next two months.
Thank the Georgia Supreme Court and Gov. Nathan Deal. That’s because the court struck down as unconstitutional a law that created an appointed commission to grant operating charters to schools started by parents -- sometimes acting on behalf of management companies -- over the objections of the local board of education. To remedy it, Deal called for putting on the general-election ballot an amendment to make it constitutional.
“Georgia’s parents want more options, and it is my duty as governor to see that they have them,” he said in May when he signed the legislation. “These schools help students trapped in underperforming schools and aid communities that want to invest in new and imaginative ways of learning for their children.”
The governor has been lobbying for the proposal, and some say, twisting a few arms. He addressed the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce last month to push the amendment around the same time that the business group decided to change its position from opposed to neutral.
After all, the Gwinnett School Board provides funding to the chamber, and it was one of the boards that filed the court challenge that overturned the original law. Gwinnett Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks is a donor to a group organized to oppose the amendment, as well as some of the school district’s vendors and personnel, a fact that has supporters questioning whether Wilbanks has twisted arms himself.
Speaking of campaign funding, the committee organized to campaign for the amendment, Families for Better Public Schools, reported to the state ethics commission that it had raised $487,000. More than 95 percent of that money came from out of state, including from companies that have their own financial interests because they operate charter schools here.
One arm that didn’t twist belongs to State Superintendent of Schools John Barge. He angered Deal and other Republican leaders when he announced his opposition to the amendment.
“I cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education,” Barge said in a prepared statement.
Barge owes the GOP nothing because his election was practically a fluke. He had qualified to launch a primary challenge against incumbent Kathy Cox when she withdrew from the race almost the moment the qualification period ended. Her departure left the party no chance to draft one of its favorites, and Barge, a little-known, mid-level administrator in Bartow County, squeaked past another dark horse in the primary and suddenly won the top education job on the strength of party identification.
The Deal-Barge-Wilbanks clash puts some faces on the issue, but another factor adds some mystery, namely voter distrust. The question is whom the voters distrust more.
Amendment supporters argue that distrust of local school boards under the sway of administrators is why a state-level commission is needed. Opponents ask why would anyone trust appointees in Atlanta more than their neighbors on the local school board who can be unseated with a few thousands votes, far simpler than trying to oust a governor over a local issue.
Distrust is the central issue in this campaign, as it was in July’s vote on the transportation sales tax. Like the tax campaign, there are certain to be some hurt feelings resulting from a public debate over who is less trustworthy but also ample fireworks.
Picking at a scab results in a permanent scar, and eroded trust in government makes it harder for everyone in office to lead, Deal, Barge and Wilbanks included.
Still, it will give political junkies something to talk about.