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Emanuel: Black will be tough competition for Irvin in agriculture race

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Story updated at 11:36 PM on Thursday, August 17, 2006

Georgia Republicans made their choice for state agriculture commissioner clearly known in the Aug. 8 primary runoff, sending career agribusinessman Gary Black into the general election with a resounding show of voter support.

Black, the wire-to-wire front-runner in this publicized down-ticket race, credited his blowout victory to "running 57 weeks with a positive message."

"Gary Black only talked about Gary Black's vision for the future of agriculture," he said while celebrating with supporters, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, at the Georgia National Fairgrounds on election night.

Black defeated Athens' Brian Kemp, taking 60 percent of the vote and getting needed momentum for November, when he will face longtime Democratic incumbent Tommy Irvin.

The cost of the runoff victory, though, leaves Black much lighter in the wallet than after the July 18 primary. He now has less than $100,000 on hand for the general election, a shortcoming that will have to be made up in coming weeks.

It was just this expectation - that the runoff would be largely an expensive validation of Black's 42 percent showing on July 18, a margin of 56,445 votes above Kemp's 27 percent showing - that caused many to call on Kemp to concede the race and allow Black to focus on preparing for the general election. That call was led, only hours after the primary, by Peach Pundit, a Web log on Georgia politics.

Kemp, who was endorsed by the two also-rans from the primary election, declined to do so - a decision which left many scratching their heads. Then again, his decision to run for agriculture commissioner in the first place was also puzzling. A successful state senator and private businessman, with nowhere near the agricultural experience of his opponents, Kemp would have been much better off biding his time as a state senator for another two terms, and then running for a higher state office if he still desired to do so.

Keeping his Senate seat wouldn't have been too difficult, especially with newly drawn district lines which made his constituency significantly more conservative and Republican.

The magnitude of his defeat notwithstanding, Kemp - who has pledged his support to Black in the general election - will be back in the Georgia political scene sooner rather than later. He is too bright, with too much to offer, to remain out of sight for long. However, next time, it would behoove him to choose an office for which he is more qualified, and one in which his own party doesn't already have a far more qualified candidate.

As far as Black is concerned, although he may not have the $650,000 war chest of his opponent, or the experience in office, he is a solid choice to challenge 37-year incumbent Irvin. A lifelong ag man who holds a degree in agriculture education from the University of Georgia, Black has worked in ag policy for a quarter-century, including 17 years as president of the 650-company Georgia Agribusiness Council.

A cattle farmer, Black is also a veteran of working with state and federal lawmakers on behalf of farm-related business. As he continually points out, his "entire career has been on the political side of agriculture."

Black also constantly professes his great respect for Irvin, but maintains it's time for a new vision. He stresses the "importance of agriculture to every citizen, not just the 11.8 percent of the population that has a direct relationship with it," and points to the results of the 2002 election, when 42 percent of the vote went against Irvin, as a sign of Irvin's vulnerability.

With the general election approaching, Black is pledging to "keep focused on the issues," although, as he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the "rhetoric" will be "contentious" at times.

When running against an incumbent, negative campaigning is a requirement of sorts, as voters must be presented with sound reasons to send an officeholder home.

Black managed to avoid getting personal in response to the attacks sent his way in the primary - even the accusation by Kemp that he was a "liberal Democrat lobbyist." With that campaign under his belt, Black should be steeled and ready to face the "dean of the state's constitutional officers" this November in a race that should prove to be the most memorable Irvin has experienced in some time.

• 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 081706

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