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Taking on a political celebrity

By Jeff Emanuel

May 12, 2006

Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series previewing Georgia's Lieutenant Governor's race. Part I can be read here.

The most heated Republican primary in Georgia is in full swing this election year, pitting state Senator Casey Cagle against conservative celebrity Ralph Reed.

A "seventh-generation North Georgian," with the accent and down-home manner to prove it, Casey Cagle accurately portrays himself as a living embodiment of the American dream. At the age of three, Cagle's father left him and his brother to be raised by their mother, who often had to work multiple jobs to provide for them—but who "never took a dime of government assistance." A public high school graduate, Cagle went into business at a young age, buying his first company at the age of 20, and quickly building a sizable portfolio of real estate and banking operations.

Running for elective office for the first time at age 28, Cagle defeated an incumbent Democrat to become the first Republican state senator from Hall County in Georgia history, and he has served there for twelve years.

Cagle’s voting record shows a dedication to many conservative issues, and he highlights this (while stressing Reed’s lack of legislative experience) when he speaks of his past achievements and of his goals as Lt. Governor. He touts the last 3 years of Republican leadership in the legislature, expressing pride in having "accomplished things they accomplished," such as "[changing] the entire business income tax structure, [cutting] a billion dollars (he pronounces it "DAH-lehs") in state spending, and [returning] $2 billion to taxpayers."

He also touts the successful Land Conservation Act, which "provides more greenspace and an incentive to keep it" that way, the passage of tort reform, increased spending on high school completion counselors, and the state's AAA bond rating, maintaining that "conservative values are at the forefront in the legislature."

Cagle cites the need to "create more economic opportunities for Georgia," but always takes care to point out that "government does not create jobs, but does create the infrastructure for jobs and businesses to be successful." On the subject of education, he stresses the need to remove the "bureaucracy that ties the hands of every teacher and administrator in our schools, and to allow them to work for what’s best for each child." He has taken a hard line on illegal immigration and on law-enforcement, voting for Georgia’s landmark Security and Immigration Compliance Act, and repeating the favorite quote that "America is a nation of immigrants and we have always welcomed new citizens to our shores. However, there is a right way and wrong way to become an American, and we cannot as a state allow large numbers of individuals to flagrantly violate our laws."

He repeatedly vows also to "continue to protect Georgia family values," citing his "record of 12 years that holds true" to this claim, including receiving the "highest ratings from Georgia Right to Life (he co-sponsored the Pharmacist Protection Act and the Women’s Right to Know Bill, among others), the Christian Coalition," and other organizations.

At each stop on the campaign trail, Cagle takes great care to stress the differences between himself and Reed. Though never addressing his opponent by name, Cagle repeatedly states that "the position of Lieutenant Governor is too important to elect someone who needs on-the-job training," and points out that the Lt. Governor, who "presides over the Senate, has always been elected from within the legislature."

Another frequent refrain of Cagle’s is that his opponent "has been asked by 21 of the 34 Republican Senators to withdraw from the race," which he follows by emphasizing that the winner of this race will have to be able to lead this body and to build consensus, openly questioning whether Reed could possibly function in such a position with so little support from the legislature. He also alludes to Reed’s ethical questions, though he never specifically mentions Jack Abramoff, and contrasts that against his own demonstrated personal "honesty and integrity."

As with any candidate, Cagle has weaknesses (which Reed is quick to highlight), including missed votes in the Senate. Though an avowed supporter of property rights (he has called the Supreme Court’s Kelo decision "very unfortunate," and maintains that in order for land to be condemned, it must clearly be blighted), Cagle was absent from the Senate floor when the vote was taken on Senate Bill 86, which was passed as counter-legislation to a bill (which was later withdrawn) that would have allowed broad use of eminent domain for private development.

Other missed votes include bills allowing excused school absences for children whose parents were in the military and were being deployed or are on leave in the war on terrorism, and providing for increased security at county courthouses. Cagle, who was in Washington the day of those votes, responds by pointing to his "having participated in 95% of votes" in the Senate, and by explaining that he had "conferred with Senate leadership to ensure only non-controversial legislation that was certain of passage was called to the floor [on the day he was absent]. Only one [of these bills] received more than a single vote in opposition, and it passed by a margin of 42 to 7."

Another point of inquiry is Cagle’s donation of $1,000 to then-Lt. Governor candidate Mark Taylor’s 1998 campaign. Cagle openly admits to having donated to the Democrat, but points to Reed, who was involved in Mitch Skandalakis’s campaign for Lt. Governor that year, as a chief reason for his having to do so. Skandalakis ran a commercial claiming that Taylor (an admitted drug user in the 1980s) was currently a drug addict; Taylor sued for libel, and Skandalakis settled after the election.

The commercial’s director maintains that Reed had no knowledge of the spot prior to its airing, but Cagle continues to hold this up as an example of Reed’s "dirty politics," which "are not what we need in Georgia." Cagle and Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson donated to Lieutenant Governor-elect Taylor (who is now running for Governor), Cagle says, so that the then-minority Republicans "would not be shut out of" decent committee assignments, and "would be able to have their legislation considered on the Senate floor"—an example, he says, of the give-and-take necessary to be an effective legislator, which he repeats that Reed does not have the experience to understand.

Though not the smoothest public speaker in Georgia politics (or even in this race), Cagle exudes an enthusiasm so great that any audience he addresses cannot help but absorb and reflect it. Georgians appear to be buying into Cagle in better-than-expected numbers, as evidenced by the relatively small number of big-money donors who have contributed to Cagle’s $1.4 million war chest, which has been raised almost entirely within the state of Georgia. The amount itself is not unimpressive, considering Georgia legislators are not allowed to raise money during the legislative session.

A recent poll by Matt Towery showed Cagle trailing Reed by 7 points (1/3 of the deficit from a few months ago), but both campaigns have touted polls which show their candidate "in the lead," and there is no doubt that much will happen between now and the July primary. Georgia Republicans are bitterly divided over this race, although it certainly appears that Cagle has less to lose from a campaign which is bound to get more, rather than less, negative as voting day approaches.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran, studies Classics at the University of Georgia. He is also a contributing editor for conservative web log, and is a columnist for the Athens, GA Banner-Herald newspaper.

Copyright © 2006

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