Originally created 07/20/00

Reform's role in races debated



ATLANTA - Opponents of Gov. Roy Barnes' education reform bill are hailing Tuesday's General Assembly primary results as a message that Georgia voters don't like the direction the governor is taking the schools.

But the legislation's supporters are ascribing losses suffered by lawmakers who voted for the measure to other factors, including changing demographics in some of the affected districts.

One fact is indisputable: All seven incumbents turned out of office in Tuesday's voting - three Republicans and four Democrats - supported the reform bill.

The casualty list included some heavy-hitters: Rep. Jimmy Benefield, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the House Transportation Committee; Sen. Paul Broun, D-Athens, the oldest member of the Senate and second in seniority; and Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, a 10-year veteran of the House.

Education was an issue particularly in Mr. Williams' Republican primary race against Sue Burmeister, who hammered away at his vote for Mr. Barnes' bill as a sign that he was acting like a Democrat. GOP state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko actively supported the challenger.

Mr. Broun conceded that his chances against Democrat Doug Haines might have been hurt by his support for the reform bill. The vote cost him the endorsement of the powerful Georgia Association of Educators, which Mr. Haines played up during the campaign.

"The voters said they were against cutting spending for reading and science and didn't like the bill ignoring discipline and taking away local control over schools," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, reciting a litany of criticisms that prompted all but one Senate Republican to vote against the reform measure in March.

Mr. Johnson said Tuesday's results make him more optimistic about Republican chances in the November elections of capturing the seven seats the GOP needs to take control of the Senate.

"It bodes well for Republican Senate candidates running against Democrats who voted for big education bureaucracies," he said.

But Democrats aren't ready to concede education to the Republicans. State Democratic Chairman David Worley predicted more Democratic incumbents will be helped by their votes for reform than will be hurt.

"Linda Schrenko had some impact on the Republican primary, but I don't think it will carry over to the general election," he said. "I think the fall's elections will be a mandate for the governor's education reform plans."

Mark Rountree, an Atlanta-based political consultant who works for Republican candidates, said the primaries were decided more by local factors, including flaws in individual candidates, than any overriding state trend.

He said Mr. Williams might have been hurt by spending too much time in Atlanta and not enough in his district.

"All of these were locally driven elections, so people are looking for a statewide theme," he said. "There were a lot of people who sided with Barnes (on education reform) who didn't even get (primary) opposition."

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