Originally created 08/12/02

Lesser-known candidate keeps focus on the issues



MACON, Ga. - The way Bill Byrne sees it, the three-way Republican primary for governor is pretty easy to figure out.

"It's a choice between a single-issue candidate, a warm-and-fuzzy candidate and an issue-focused candidate," said the former Cobb County Commission chairman.

By his reckoning, state schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko is the first, former state Sen. Sonny Perdue is the second and he is the third.

It's the kind of straight talk that Atlanta Republicans have come to expect from Mr. Byrne.

The sometimes-gruff ex-Marine is just as likely to offer a four-letter response to a political opponent as he is to spell out a five-point plan to lower taxes or shore up Georgia's water supply.

At a candidates forum in Macon last week, Mr. Byrne acknowledged that his substance-over-style approach, combined with his lack of statewide name recognition, had him sitting in third place out of three candidates about two weeks before the Aug. 20 primary.

But don't expect him to talk less policy and kiss more babies to try to close the gap. He's sticking to issues.

"That's how I campaign, and that can be very boring in contrast to just walking up to people, smiling and telling them how nice they look," Mr. Byrne said.

"Bill's a very bright guy, but he's somewhat standoffish," said G. Woody Thompson, a Cobb County commis-sioner. "You can't get close to him ... and I got along with him probably as well as anybody."

Mr. Thompson said that the commission, under Mr. Byrne's leadership, was able to put aside differences and accomplish good things. But he said Mr. Byrne's take-no-prisoners approach might be tough for a Republican working with what's likely to still be a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"He's not a consensus builder; it's either my way or the highway," Mr. Thompson said. "That's just the way he operates."

Topping Mr. Byrne's campaign platform is a five-point package of tax relief. It includes eliminating state taxes on the first $5,000 in income, offering permanent property-tax relief and eliminating state taxes on retirement income.

"You put that package of tax reductions on the table and it's pretty significant," Mr. Byrne said.

He's also pushing more local control over schools, improved public safety and transportation and assurances that Georgia has an adequate water supply in the future.

While he's made campaign stops in Savannah, Augusta and other cities throughout the state, Mr. Byrne's hopes start and stop in metro Atlanta.

There are 8.3 million people in Georgia. More than half of them live in the 10 largest counties, most of them clustered around the state capital.

With more than 607,000 residents, Cobb County is the state's third-largest county and one of its most Republican. It's the county where the crime rate dropped while population was rising and where Mr. Byrne led a commission that consistently rolled back property tax rates and effectively froze property assessments.

"My opponents are going to have to work very hard in other counties to offset my one county," said Mr. Byrne, who was elected commission chairman three times, most recently with about 70 percent of the vote.

Experts say that banking on home folks to put him over the top probably won't work for Mr. Byrne but that it does give him a good home base of support.

"Because Cobb County is such a Republican County, he has a strong base to build on there," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "He has hundreds of thousands of people who have at least lived in the area where he has been a major player.

"But he needs to get known far outside of that county, and there's not a ton of money for him to do that."

Last month, Mr. Byrne reported he had raised $343,000, with $72,100 of that money not yet spent. That leaves him far behind Mrs. Schrenko and Mr. Perdue, both of whom secured big loans to prop up their accounts.

And his metro Atlanta hopes may take a hit from an unusual source. In DeKalb County, controversial U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney is locked in a neck-and-neck race with state court Judge Denise Majette in the Democratic primary. Some Republicans in that district are expected to ask for a Democratic primary ballot so they can help toss Ms. McKinney.

"That's huge," Mr. Byrne said. "I've got a huge lead in DeKalb County among Republican voters, and when those folks cross over to vote for Denise Majette ... we're the loser.

"But that's typical of the damn Republican Party in Georgia."

Mr. Byrne's opponents are quick to point out his hair-trigger temper and controversial nature.

Along with his successes in Cobb County came some controversies. The commission found itself in the national headlines several years ago when it yanked funding from a theater that staged a play with homosexual themes.

Dr. Bullock said some politicians with similar dispositions have succeeded in Georgia. Another ex-Marine, Zell Miller, had a well-known short temper while governor but now enjoys tremendous popularity as a U.S. senator.

Mr. Byrne says he has no plans to try to sand down the rough edges. He'll stick to the issues and hope for the best, he says.

"If your message is wrong, I don't give a damn what you do, you're going to lose," Mr. Byrne said.