Originally created 04/28/00

Incumbents to face opposition this fall



ATLANTA -- Two high ranking Democrats from Augusta, Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker and House Speaker Pro Tempore Jack Connell, will face Republican challengers this fall.

Louise Johnson, who mounted an unsuccessful effort to unseat state Rep. Henry Howard two years ago, filed qualifying papers at the Capitol on Thursday to oppose Mr. Walker. Earlier in the week, Augusta/Richmond County Board of Education member Cherie Foster qualified to take on Mr. Connell.

Both women vowed to raise the incumbents' support of Gov. Roy Barnes' education-reform bill as an issue during the coming campaign.

Mrs. Foster, who is in her eighth year on the school board, said she's leery of the new school councils the legislation creates. She said they could cause logistical challenges for school board members that would be impossible to meet.

"While I now have one budget to look at, I'll have 61 to look at, one for each school and the general-fund budget, all within 60 days," she said.

Critics have argued that school councils, which would include teachers, business professionals and parents, would strip elected school boards of some of their authority.

But Mr. Connell emphasized that the councils only would have advisory powers.

"I think it's good to have people with an interest in the operation of a school be able to look at it and make suggestions," he said.

Ms. Johnson criticized the portion of the reform measure that creates an Office of Education Accountability, separate from the Department of Education, to oversee the new tests that will be used to rate schools.

"It's an attempt to take away the rights of the people who elected (Republican) Linda Schrenko as school superintendent and replace her with an unelected Democratic state school superintendent," she said.

Although Mrs. Foster declined to criticize Mr. Connell, Ms. Johnson lashed out at Mr. Walker as a politician motivated more by self-interest than a commitment to public service.

"My opponent has apparently chosen the path of pursuing his personal financial well-being through the extortion of taxpayers' money rather than representing the people of the district," she said, evidently referring to a contract between a temporary-employment agency owned by Mr. Walker and Grady Hospital in Atlanta, the state's largest public hospital.

During the recent legislative session, Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, argued in a speech from the Senate well that it's a conflict of interest for state lawmakers with power over the allocation of state funds to public hospitals to do business with them.

Mr. Walker responded that he had done nothing wrong in obtaining the contract with Grady, which has expired since the end of the session.

"I do not apologize for making a living," Mr. Walker said during a recent interview. "This is a part-time legislature."

Mrs. Foster and Ms. Johnson also expressed impatience with the sluggish progress on building the Fall Line Freeway linking Augusta to Macon and Columbus and the Savannah River Parkway connecting Augusta and Savannah.

"We've talked about both for 30 years, and they're still not here," Mrs. Foster said.

But Mr. Connell said the General Assembly has consistently supported the two projects and the state's other so-called "developmental" highways well beyond the state gasoline-tax allocation that automatically goes into road building.

During this year's session, lawmakers earmarked $120 million in the mid-year budget for the program, $20 million more than had been requested by the governor.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.