Kemp, Black vie for right to face veteran ag chief

ATLANTA - Two Republicans have been crisscrossing the state for months in an effort to put Georgia's longtime agriculture commissioner out to pasture.

But state Sen. Brian Kemp and former farm industry lobbyist Gary Black still have a huge hurdle to clear before either can focus his full attention on Democrat Tommy Irvin.

Kemp, 42, of Athens and Black, 47, of Commerce meet in a runoff next Tuesday to decide who will carry the Republican fight to Irvin, who is seeking his 10th term as the state's agriculture chief.

Black was the top vote-getter in the first round of primary voting last month, receiving 42.3 percent of the GOP vote to 26.8 percent for Kemp. But Black came up short of the majority required under Georgia law to avoid a runoff.

Now, it's a whole new ballgame, and Kemp carries with him the endorsements of the two candidates who didn't make the runoff, Bob Greer and Deanna Strickland.

"The score is 0-0 again,'' Kemp said. "It's all about who's going to turn their folks out again.''

Still, Black entered the abbreviated runoff campaign the day after the primary with some advantages resulting from the size of his vote. He carried 137 of the state's 159 counties on July 18, with Kemp dominating only inside his Northeast Georgia Senate district and in the counties along the coast.

"We've been back in those areas,'' Black said this week. "I'm very encouraged with the results.''

Black and Kemp have talked up many of the same issues throughout the campaign, including the need for new leadership in the Department of Agriculture and their goal of making Georgia a leader in the fledgling biofuels industry.

But Kemp says he would be a better steward of the taxpayers' money. If elected, he said he would push to reduce the department's budget by 10 percent in the coming decade by putting in place recommendations from performance audits and taking advantage of technological advances.

"I believe in less government and finding efficiencies in government,'' he said.

Kemp said his experience in business and in the General Assembly are a good fit for the agriculture commissioner's post.

In the Senate, he served as chairman of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. Protecting the state's food supply from bioterrorism is an important function of the agriculture department.

Kemp also is a member of the Agriculture Committee and chairs the budget subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency.

Kemp also started two businesses.

"I've had to meet payrolls, deal with regulations, taxation and insurance,'' he said.

But Black said his experience as an advocate for farmers and farm businesses at the state and federal levels of government is better suited to what an agriculture commissioner does.

Before becoming president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council 17 years ago, Black worked for the Georgia Farm Bureau. Back in college, he served on the staff of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.

"This is a political position that has a job to do from day one,'' he said. "We don't need any on-the-job training.''

During his time with the agribusiness council, Black said he organized an exhibit at the Atlanta Olympics showcasing Georgia agriculture and developed a self-funded worker's compensation program for farmers and farm businesses.

"We've returned over $2.5 million to farmers and ag business owners in the last seven years,'' he said.

As for Kemp's endorsements, Black counters with support from four of Georgia's Republican congressmen: John Linder, Charlie Norwood, Nathan Deal and Lynn Westmoreland. They endorsed him before the July primary.

Here are the candidates for the Republican nomination for Georgia agriculture commissioner in the Aug. 8 runoff:

Gary Black

•Age: 47

•Residence: Commerce

•Occupation: Trade association executive/farmer

•Education: Bachelor's degree in agricultural education, University of Georgia

•Political Experience: None

•Family: Wife, Lydia, two children

•E-mail: gary@votegaryblack.com

Brian Kemp

•Age: 42

•Residence: Athens

•Occupation: Business owner

•Education: Bachelor's degree in agriculture, University of Georgia

•Political Experience: Elected to state Senate, 2002

•Family: Wife, Marty, three children

•E-mail: Brian@votebriankemp.com