I visited the mayor a couple of weeks ago at his office to see if he was truly serious. He tells me he is and that he will be making a decision by the end of the month on whether to take on a governor whose poll numbers are generally good, who has already raised more than $3 million for his re-election campaign and who hasn’t lost an election in 30 years.
“This is not a wild goose chase,” he said. “I have met a lot of people around the state that have encouraged me to run. I will run if I see a logical path and raise a certain amount of money.”
Not only will Pennington have to deal with a powerful incumbent (Don’t let Deal’s low-key persona fool you. The office of governor of Georgia comes with a lot of inherent power) and a party apparatus that likely will not support him, he also has a perception problem. Some media pundits refuse to take him seriously.
None of this seems to faze the mayor. Pennington says he is considering the challenge to the governor because the state is “headed in the wrong direction.” He believes state government is expanding at a time it should be shrinking.
“The state-funded portion of our budget has grown from $17.4 billion to $19.9 billion over the past three years,” he said. “We need to cut spending. We are too fat at the top.”
He vowed the first thing he would do when he took office would be to cut the state income tax by 20 percent.
“And I would not offset that with an increase in sales tax[es],” he said.
The mayor cites his record in Dalton where he has cut taxes for five straight years and pared the bureaucracy.
He struck a chord with me regarding criticism from politicians and so-called “experts” about the quality of public school teachers.
Pennington said, “The education system in America has the highest-trained and highest-educated employees in America, all with four-year degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates. But they are so hamstrung by rules and regulations they can’t create or innovate. We need to give our local school systems more opportunity to innovate. Instead, our state wants to centralize even further. That is going to choke out whatever creativity there is in the local system.
“We continually denigrate our teachers and then expect more productivity out of them while underfunding public education. It is ridiculous.”
On behalf of the four school teachers in my family, he will get no argument from me on that point.
Pennington isn’t impressed with the collegiality between the Legislature and the governor. He believes there should be more give-and-take and more hard questions asked.
He says, “The ‘car tax’ has been a disaster and the ethics bill was a joke.”
Pennington declared that during the last session there were too many times legislators didn’t even know what they were voting on. He thinks the public is better served when there are some tensions between the branches of government.
I asked him about the recent announcement Deal made in Dalton that Engineered Floors would open two facilities in northwest Georgia. The area is the carpet manufacturing capital of the nation and has been hard hit by the recession. The governor said new plants in Whitfield and Murray counties were expected to employ 2,000 people over the next five years.
“That was going to happen anyway,” Pennington said. “The credit belongs to Bob Shaw. He did an expansion a couple of years ago up here without all the political fanfare.” (Shaw is chairman of Engineered Floors.)
Can an incumbent governor be defeated? One has only to go back to 2002, when Republican State Sen. Sonny Perdue ousted incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes. However, Barnes was handicapped by the rising tide of conservatism in the state and poor political counsel. Whether Deal is conservative enough for some on the political right may be up for debate, but not the quality of his political advisers. Pennington won’t sneak up on this group.
If self-confidence won elections, Pennington would be a shoo-in. Transferring that confidence into votes is another matter. Let’s just say if the man does decide to run, it is going to be uphill all the way.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga. 31139.