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Emanuel: Ag commissioner race piques GOP interest

Story updated at 12:49 AM on Sunday, July 9, 2006

Seeking to take advantage of the state's recent Republican trend, the Georgia GOP has its eye on several constitutional offices which have long been under Democrat control; thus, four Republicans - Gary Black, Bob Greer, Brian Kemp and Deanna Strickland - are vying for the nod to take on the "dean of Georgia's constitutional officers," Democrat Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin, a 37-year veteran of the post.

Greer and Strickland are veterans of campaigning for the ag commissioner's office. The party's nominees in 1998 and 2002, respectively, both have a background in agriculture and a small core of dedicated followers, but lack the mass appeal of front-runners Black and Kemp.

Kemp is well known in Athens-Clarke County, serving as the community's state senator for the past four years. A graduate of the University of Georgia, with a bachelor's degree in agriculture, he owns a construction company and is co-owner of a stone supply corporation.

Kemp's stated goals are to improve legislative advocacy, expand agricultural education, provide tax relief to farmers, encourage new agribusiness, and to bring the office's communications into the online information age with a radical overhaul of the department's Web site.

The strongest assets he brings from his time in the state legislature will be leadership experience, knowledge and familiarity with the inner workings of state government, and committee experience - especially as secretary of the Consumer and Agriculture Affairs Committee, and chairman of the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security committee. In an age where global terrorism - including the possibility of a threat to Americans' food supply - is on many voters' radar screens, this is a credential he has touted, as he has made preventing the threat of agricultural terrorism a significant part of his campaign platform.

"Protecting our food from terrorist attack is a real issue," Kemp has said. He has gone as far as including a picture of Osama bin Laden in a campaign commercial.

The other front-runner, Commerce native and 1980 UGA graduate Gary Black, who holds a degree in agriculture education, has worked in agricultural policy for 25 years, most recently serving as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, an organization of more than 600 businesses.

Black, a cattle farmer who was Future Farmers of America president in high school, is a veteran of working with state and federal lawmakers on behalf of farm-related business. He cites as part of his qualifications for office the "ability to immediately interact with the congressional delegation," as a result of the fact his "entire career has been on the political side of agriculture." An advocate of "performance-driven government, with measurable productivity, performance, and accountability," Black speaks of his desire to "bring agriculture into the 21st century," in terms of information access, biofuel initiatives, and other innovations, while "bringing a servant's heart to government," something he says is "desperately lacking" in the present establishment.

The focal point of his agenda is his self-titled "E-3 initiative" - economic development, environmental stewardship, and education.

Both Black and Kemp have spoken against the current stagnant government bureaucracy, and have addressed the need to bring a new vision, energy and a sense of urgency to the post. They have similar agendas for the department and for the office, but have different backgrounds, both professionally and in avocational agriculture.

The majority sentiment among Georgia Republicans appears to be that Greer and Strickland have run their course in their quest for the office of ag commissioner. Neither was able to garner more than 39 percent of the statewide vote in their respective attempts at election, and neither has seen their strength as a candidate improve since. Polls have consistently shown Black and Kemp far ahead of the pair of former nominees, setting Georgia's Republican voters up with a difficult choice between two qualified, viable candidates for the position.

Both front-runners have strong, devoted followings, and neither appears poised to pull away before the July 18 primary. The combination of Greer's and Strickland's candidacies appears poised to force a runoff between the front-runners.

Both Black's and Kemp's proposed policies are similar enough that neither candidate's followers should have too much hesitation about supporting their opponent, should he win the nomination; thus, previously undecided primary voters have the luxury of being able to vote for whichever primary candidate seems more able to win the general election - a tall order, considering the victor's Democrat opponent will be seeking a 10th consecutive term.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a senior at the University of Georgia. He serves as public-relations director for the UGA College Republicans, the largest student political organization in the country. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the UGA College Republicans.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 070906

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