Originally created 04/03/00

GOP targets growing areas



ATLANTA - Republicans have little to show for the Georgia General Assembly session that ended late last month.

Majority Democrats shot down every GOP-sponsored amendment to Gov. Roy Barnes' massive education-reform bill. A constitutional amendment backed by Republicans that would make it harder to spend the state's budget surplus failed even to get a hearing in the Senate.

And what would have been the biggest Republican victory of the year, a bid to thwart a new state Environmental Protection Division policy requiring annual vehicle emissions inspections in metro-Atlanta, petered out on the last day of the session.

But GOP stalwarts aren't despairing, because 2000 is an election year. With all 236 state House and Senate seats up for grabs in November, what the Republican minority couldn't get into state law during the 40-day session will be campaign fodder this summer and fall.

"I think this session drew very sharp distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans," said House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta. "(Democrats) want to spend more, borrow more, tax more and regulate more. .°.°. We'll stress those differences during the campaign."

The stakes will be particularly high this fall, two years after legislative Democrats fought Republicans to a draw in the Senate and gained one House seat. Loyalists of both parties will be anxious to see whether Democrats' 1998 success was a new trend or whether the GOP will resume the steady gains it enjoyed through most of the 1990s.

The 2000 election also is the last before reapportionment, when lawmakers will redraw the lines for congressional and legislative districts based on this year's census. The party that controls the General Assembly will be in a better position to mold those boundaries to its political advantage.

Mr. Barnes won't be at the top of the ticket this year to lead legislative Democrats to victory as he did in 1998. But the governor's popularity with voters during this first half of a four-year term still should be a major factor, said Georgia Democratic Chairman David Worley.

"Democratic candidates clearly are going to be running on Roy Barnes' agenda from the past two years, which includes education reform, property-tax relief, a patients' bill of rights and controlled growth," he said.

Mr. Worley says Republicans have hurt their chances by fighting Mr. Barnes' education bill, allowing themselves to be portrayed as opponents of reform.

But Republicans say they can use the legislation to their advantage by pointing out its potential hidden costs to taxpayers. For example, school officials in Savannah last week shocked parents with news of cutbacks in art, music and physical education classes in order to meet the costs, they say, of the reform bill's provisions.

"There are some real causes for alarm in terms of hitting up school districts already nearing their constitutional cap of 20 mills with unfunded mandates," said state GOP Chairman Chuck Clay.

Mr. Irvin said Democrats also could suffer a backlash at the polls from teachers, normally a reliable constituency for the majority party.

"Teachers got upset with the governor because they were getting blamed for the fact that education isn't what it needs to be in this state," he said. "I think they're angry about it, and they won't forget it."

But Democrats argue that parents, who should be delighted with education reform, far outnumber teachers.

"We're going to have smaller class sizes," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "We're going to have more paraprofessionals in the classroom, more counselors and more mental-health workers."

While education promises to be an important campaign issue, political strategists are basing decisions on which legislative seats to pursue on other factors, such as demographic trends and historical voting patterns.

Republicans are banking on North Georgia, where they have fared well in recent elections, and the state's fastest-growing areas, including the outer reaches of metro Atlanta and coastal Georgia. Their targets include two North Georgia Democratic senators, Sonny Huggins of LaFayette and Carol Jackson of Cleveland, and Sen. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville, whose Southeast Georgia district includes rapidly growing Camden County.

"The growth in Georgia is mostly in areas where people tend to be Republicans or independents," said Alec Poitevint of Bainbridge, treasurer for the Republican National Committee, which has targeted legislative races in Georgia and eight other states for financial assistance this year.

Democrats, on the other hand, are going after Republican-held seats in districts that historically have voted Democratic.

Examples include the Columbus-area district represented by Sen. Clay Land, and the Southwest Georgia House seat of Dan Ponder, R-Donalsonville, neither of whom is seeking re-election. Democrats also are taking aim at the Middle Georgia Senate seats of Susan Cable, R-Macon, and Sonny Perdue, R-Bonaire. Mr. Perdue defected to the Republicans shortly before candidate qualifying in 1998, leaving Democrats unable to field a challenger then.

With the GOP 13 seats short of taking control of the House and seven seats shy of a majority in the Senate, Republicans readily concede they face an uphill fight for taking over either chamber. Mr. Walker predicts Republicans even could lose up to two seats in the Senate.

Mr. Poitevint said it's important for Republicans to get their numbers as close to the Democrats as possible this year, to better position themselves for the approaching reapportionment battle. That's the best strategy for maximizing the GOP gains he says are sure to follow the census.

"In order to do that, we need to focus on 2000, not 2002," he said.

Targeted seats

Minority Republicans are targeting five Georgia Senate Democrats for defeat this fall, while Democrats have set their sights on three GOP-held seats.

Seat............Incumbent.........Party..........Home

7th District....Peg Blitch........Democrat.......Homerville

16th District...Clay Land*........Republican.....Columbus

18th District...Sonny Perdue......Republican.....Bonaire

25th District...Faye Smith........Democrat.......Milledgeville

27th District...Susan Cable.......Republican.....Macon

29th District...Daniel Lee........Democrat.......LaGrange

50th District...Carol Jackson.....Democrat.......Cleveland

53rd District...Sonny Huggins.....Democrat.......LaFayette

*not seeking re-election

Source: Georgia Republican and Democratic chairmen

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.



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