Originally created 08/12/02

Ex-Democrat speaks out for government 'by the people'



ROSWELL, Ga. - It's a few minutes before the Roswell Rotary Club will ring its bell and get down to business, and former state Sen. Sonny Perdue is in his element.

He shakes hands and slaps backs in the community hall before getting in line for a chicken dinner. When he does, he stops to hand out plastic plates to the Rotarians behind him in line.

Such gatherings are old hat for Mr. Perdue, a middle Georgia veterinary supply store owner who became the top Democrat in the Senate before switching parties in 1998. Now, he wants Georgia Republicans to choose him to take on Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in November.

By the time he was finished speaking to the Rotarians, at least some members of the heavily Republican, suburban-Atlanta crowd were sold.

"His frankness was refreshing; his values seem to be very strong," said Larry Mashburn, who was undecided between Mr. Perdue and state school Superintendent Linda Schren-ko before the speech.

Mr. Perdue will face Mrs. Schrenko and former Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne in the Aug. 20 Republican primary.

While he's hoping to cash in on a busy campaign schedule and help from the state Republican Party, Mr. Perdue's opponents cite his party switch and support of Georgia's unpopular natural-gas deregulation.

For most of the campaign, Mr. Perdue - who served as Senate majority leader and president pro-tem before switching parties - has focused on Mr. Barnes, who he says has grabbed power in areas from education to redistricting to last year's whirlwind state-flag change.

"He made the decision early on that he wanted to make himself one of the most powerful - if not the most powerful - governors Georgia's ever had," Mr. Perdue said. "What I'm talking about is changing Georgia government back to the old-fashioned concept of government of the people, by the people and for the people."

If campaign promises hold up, Mr. Perdue's first day in office would be a busy one. He has pledged on that day to appoint a state inspector to look for corruption and waste and wants to open bidding for an independent statewide audit.

He also says he would introduce legislation that would eliminate taxes on retirement benefits and would call for a redrawing of political maps drafted by majority Democrats in the General Assembly last year.

Mr. Perdue has rolled out plans to get the entire state connected with high-speed Internet access and to either return all government budget surplus money to taxpayers or use that money to pay down the state debt.

He has landed nearly every major endorsement in the Republican race, from the state's largest daily newspapers down to Atlanta's weekly alternative paper.

Georgia Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, has labeled both Mr. Perdue and Mr. Byrne "pro-life" candidates - a sore spot for Mr. Perdue after Mr. Byrne advertised the announcement as an endorsement of his campaign.

But a huge chunk of Mr. Perdue's success can be attributed to the support of the Georgia Republican Party. Under the leadership of former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, candidates in virtually every statewide race say the party has picked a favorite - in this case, Mr. Perdue.

Mr. Perdue said he welcomes the support, along with endorsements by prominent former Republican officeholders, including ex-Sen. Mack Mattingly and former state Attorney General Michael Bowers.

"They believe me to have the capability to win the final round and the capability to govern," he said. "(But) we're also working very hard to earn that nomination."

Mr. Byrne and Mrs. Schren-ko say it's unfair for party leaders to take such an active role in their own primary - although they note that it could have unintended consequences.

"We're talking about a very small group of men who sit behind closed doors and smoke cigars," Mrs. Schrenko said. "But it almost energizes the real people of the Republican Party to get out and work hard for me and put up signs for me. It almost helps."

Political experts say the party's blessing isn't enough to bank on at the polls.

"The party really can't anoint people," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "Sure, you'd rather have them in your corner than against you, but you've got to go out and win it on your own."

Mr. Byrne and Mrs. Schren-ko have also taken shots at Mr. Perdue's midlife conversion to the GOP. But he defends the move.

"I'm a Republican by choice, not by birth," Mr. Perdue said. "I think that's a critical distinction. This was not a move of opportunism; this was a move of principle and a move of conviction."

With about two weeks remaining until the primary, some polls were showing Mr. Perdue trailing Mrs. Schrenko by up to 20 points. But nearly half of the respondents to those polls said they were still undecided.

With about $875,000 remaining in his political war chest, Mr. Perdue should be able to keep the TV ads he began airing last week in front of many voters through the primary.

If none of the candidates earns more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff Sept. 10 between the top two vote-getters.

"We're prepared to win sooner or later," Mr. Perdue said. "But I'm confident I'll be the nominee."