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PSC runoff election set for Tuesday

ATLANTA - Although many Georgians probably aren't aware of it, there's some unfinished business left over from the November elections.

After casting ballots this year in party primaries, primary runoffs and the Nov. 7 general election, voters are being asked to return to the polls Tuesday for a fourth time to fill the state Public Service Commission's District 3 seat in a rare general election runoff.

With that PSC race the only statewide contest on the ballot, few voters are expected to bother.

That's the number one concern shared by Commissioner David Burgess, the incumbent Democrat, and Chuck Eaton, his Republican opponent.

"The challenge is to get people to come back to the polls in a holiday season,'' said Burgess, who is seeking his second full term on the PSC. "You have to get them to understand how important this agency is to everyday life.''

Added Eaton: "This is just a question of going out to your base voters, in my case, hardcore Republicans. ... We're going to target that base with phone messages and a mail piece.''

While every other statewide incumbent won re-election three weeks ago, Eaton held Burgess below 50 percent, the bar candidates in Georgia must reach to avoid a runoff.

Burgess captured 48.8 percent of the vote, with Eaton taking 46.3 percent and Libertarian Paul MacGregor 4.9 percent. All that did was eliminate MacGregor and land Burgess and Eaton in a Dec. 5 runoff.

While members of the PSC are elected statewide, the winner will represent District 3, which is made up of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties.

Eaton, 37, a Realtor from Atlanta, has sought to portray himself as an advocate for consumers. Throughout the campaign, he has decried high natural gas rates, frequently citing the statistic that Georgians are paying 51 percent more for gas than the national average.

"Sure, some of it is regional,'' he said. "What can we do to make our region more competitive? That's what we ought to be looking at.''

At the same time, Eaton has hammered away at Burgess' voting record as leaning heavily toward utilities and has criticized the incumbent for taking campaign contributions from utility executives.

Burgess, 48, of Decatur dismissed the challenger's charges as a "disingenuous attempt'' to fool voters.

"What's interesting about it is every time he's had a fundraiser, he's sent invitations to the same people who are on my financial disclosure documents,'' he said.

Burgess said much of the criticism of his voting record stems from his tendency to support the PSC's staff and vote against attempts to amend staff recommendations in favor of changes held up as pro consumer.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Burgess to the PSC in 1999 after he had served on the agency's staff for 17 years. He then was elected to a six-year term in 2000.

"I come from the staff and know the quality of work they do,'' he said.

Burgess' career with the PSC is another bone of contention between the two candidates.

Eaton said he has the real-world business knowledge that Burgess lacks.

"He's worked for government ever since he's been out of college,'' Eaton said. "I'd like to bring some of my business experience to the PSC.''

But Burgess said his years with the agency are a better background for the work the PSC does.

"It's a ridiculous notion to say, 'I can come into this job and apply general business principles,''' Burgess said. "I think it's a pipe dream.''

The outcome of the race is difficult to predict because of conflicting historical trends.

Looking at recent history, 2006 has been a good year for incumbents in Georgia, which would favor Burgess. While Republicans fared well up and down the statewide ballot, all three Democratic incumbents on the slate won easily.

On the other hand, Republicans have done a better job getting their voters to show up for runoffs, going back to the late Paul Coverdell's 1992 runoff upset of Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.

That would appear to favor Eaton, but he's not taking it to the bank.

"It's such a low profile, low turnout race, I don't know if I want to count on that,'' he said.