Gov. Sonny, then and now

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The Honorable George “Sonny” Perdue III is closing in on the end of his term-limited tenure as governor, elected in 2002, being the first Republican to hold the office since 1868.

Like any political leader, Gov. Perdue had his ups and downs. But, the most fascinating part of the Perdue story is the fact he was ever elected governor in the first place.

Perdue began his political career in 1990 as a Democrat; yet, in 1998, he could no longer identify with the changing platform of the party. Similarly, a majority of state voters were beginning to slowly shift Republican. The Reagan Revolution was beginning to seep into the hard-packed Georgia red clay, and Perdue was ahead of the curve.

In 2002, then-state Senator Perdue got the wild idea that he, with little name recognition around the state, could beat School Superintendent Linda Schrenko and Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne for the Republican nomination for governor. Well, it worked — as Schrenko was not cut out for such political dealings and Byrne came off as a grumpy old man — without a runoff.

But the real challenge for Perdue was the incumbent, Governor Roy Barnes. Barnes, a gifted speaker and politician, was part of the Democratic elite and had many connections.

Barnes had raised $20 million for his 2002 re-election campaign, while Perdue’s effort could best be described as a “wing and a prayer” with a meager $3 million. In fact, with the election only weeks away, Perdue’s campaign staff had no idea how their candidate was doing because they ran out of funds, and were unable to conduct any polls.

Perdue went on to defeat the incumbent by 52 percent to 48 percent. The Barnes overthrow was blamed on anger surrounding poor SAT scores, the change of the state flag and school teachers who were trampled by the governor’s take-no-prisoners political style (the Perdue campaign referred to Barnes as “King Roy”).

Probably the most surprised and delighted person was Perdue himself. “I feel like I just won the Super Bowl and I didn’t even know I was in the game,” Perdue said following his victory (“Why Sonny Perdue Won,”

The euphoria quickly wore off with a headline in the National Review blaring, “Impeach Governor Sonny Perdue” just days after he was sworn into office.

The article, by Stephen Moore on Jan. 23, 2003, proclaimed, “Is there any governor in American history who has gotten off to a more ignominious start than Georgia’s newly elected chief executive Sonny Perdue? Republicans in the state waited more than 100 years to wrestle the governorship from the Democrats, but it took only 24 hours for the new Republican regime to request a giant tax increase.”

Yes, the governor, new to office, had just called for a $762 million tax increase in the midst of a poor economy.

Moore continued, “Perdue and his fellow Georgia Republicans ran as fervent anti-tax conservatives, and promised a more taxpayer friendly constellation of policies. What fiscal frauds.”

Republicans in the legislature flew out of their seats to let the new governor know the votes were not coming. Cuts in service, improved efficiency and no tax increases became the norm.

The next forest fire Perdue faced was the raging state flag issue. Eventually, there was a voter referendum on the state flag, but the choice was the then-current Barnes flag or the new Republican selection; neither restored the St. Andrews Cross. The voters selected a new flag, but billboards and bumper stickers across the state read, “Sonny lied.”

There was a loud uproar over the state’s unwillingness to help fund the massive sewer catastrophe in the city of Atlanta. The city, sewers literally crumbling, simply did not have the means to raise the billions needed to restore the system, and the new Republican majority at the state was not about to bail out the Democratic regime in Atlanta.

A group of metro Republican mayors, including myself, who appreciated the financial relevance the “mother city” had on our local economies, went to see Perdue. We let the governor know that if Atlanta went down, the rest of us would not be far behind.

I told the governor that I understood Atlanta should be responsible for their neglect, but the state should at least give them another legal means to raise the funds without having to raise property taxes to astronomical rates.

Days later, Perdue announced the creation of the Municipal Option Sales Tax (MOST), and the legislature passed the bill, resuscitating Atlanta’s chance at a comeback.

For the rest of his journey, Perdue played the role of low-key governor, steady decision-maker, and long-term thinker. The governor never influenced or dominated either house of the legislature — not his style.

While the new Republican majority legislature acted like giddy kids in the candy store, losing sight of goals and ideals, Perdue had to use his veto power to foil bad bills and employ his authority to reduce spending to keep the government on track.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, an autocratic chieftain, caused the governor a great deal of heartburn. You will notice that Richardson and the House are not offering to create a more realistic budget this year, leaving it to Perdue.

In addition, you will not hear the legislature apologize for criticizing the governor’s veto of their $1.5 billion in tax cuts that would have clearly bankrupted the state.

Persistent, Perdue managed to push through the strongest ethics reform package in Georgia’s history after wrangling with the legislature for two years.

The governor managed two gas crises, praised for one, criticized for the other. In addition, he handled some significant emergency budget situations, the latest requiring an almost $2 billion infusion from the federal stimulus package.

Perdue managed some concessions in the state’s water crisis, and Congress will most likely decide our fate in the water wars.

The governor created some ethical concerns with controversial land deals, failing to list one on his state financial disclosure forms for 2003 and 2004. The other involved local real estate developer Stan Thomas and property purchased in Florida.

Perdue won office based on the state flag, SAT scores and teacher disappointment. The old flag was never addressed. We are still around the bottom on SAT scores. And teachers have flat pay, less resources and mandatory furloughs.

Over two unassuming terms, Gov. Perdue’s most valuable contribution has been keeping taxes down and not allowing a self-indulgent Republican legislature to embarrass us.

[Steve Brown is the former mayor of Peachtree City. He can be reached at]

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