SMYRNA, Ga. — State schools Superintendent John Barge said Tuesday that education, ethics and economic development will be his top issues as he takes on the uphill battle of trying to woo Republican voters and oust Gov. Nathan Deal in next year’s primary.
“Now a lot of people say I’m crazy. A lot of people said I was crazy to run for state schools superintendent, too,” Barge said at an event formally kicking off his campaign. “But I have a passion not only for education but for this state.”
Barge starts at a distinct financial disadvantage. His campaign account had $2,000 in it, according to the most recent campaign finance reports, compared with Deal’s $1.1 million. Barge will have to explain his opposition to a state charter schools amendment that passed with strong support from Republican voters, and he’ll have to work around his day job because he plans to stay on as superintendent through the election.
Barge’s central message is “Georgia deserves better,” and he hopes to attract educators with a message of increased funding for public education. While short on specifics, he said he plans to accomplish this by reducing the size of government and not raising taxes. He criticized Deal for failing to fund education appropriately, saying it’s embarrassing that two-thirds of Georgia public schools are in session less than the state minimum of 180 days and that it makes it difficult to attract businesses to the state.
“We must invest in education,” Barge said. “People will say it is still the largest piece of our budget, and that is true. But education must be perceived as an investment and not a line item in a budget.”
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor looks forward to debating the issues and suggested that “only Democrats could support the large tax increases that (Barge’s) plans would require.”
Dalton Mayor David Pennington is also challenging Deal for the Republican nomination, arguing that the governor has not done enough to rebuild Georgia’s economy since the recession.
The working relationship between Barge and Deal has been chilly since Barge announced his opposition to last year’s state charter schools amendment. Barge has said he supports charter schools but felt the amendment was unnecessary. He said he made a promise to Deal at the time that he would not publicly oppose the amendment, which left him unable to explain his position.
Barge said he expects to have $100,000 in contributions by the end of the week and has already received individual pledges that would help him quickly reach $1 million.
When asked about Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, Barge declined to take a position. Barge said he plans to consult with experts on issues and have more details in the coming months.
Over the weekend, former state Sen. Connie Stokes said she plans to run for governor in the Democratic primary. It’s possible other Democrats could still enter the race.