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Political newcomer opposing nine-term veteran in ag race

ATLANTA - Democrat Tommy Irvin, who has been Georgia's agriculture commissioner since 1969, wants to serve one more term before riding into the sunset of retirement.

But Republican Gary Black says the incumbent has grown too comfortable in the job over the years and now - not four years from now - is the time for a change.

Those are the dynamics of a race far down the statewide ballot that doesn't draw much attention but that will decide who will oversee Georgia's No. 1 industry with duties from food safety to fuel quality to pest control.

Irvin, 77, paid his dues on the way to statewide office. He served on the school board in Habersham County and in the Georgia House before being appointed agriculture commissioner to fill a vacancy.

A year later, he won the first of nine elections to the post.

Irvin said he has plenty of energy for the job, still getting up each day at 5 a.m.

"I'm younger than Ronald Reagan was in his last term (as president), and I don't believe there's as much pressure in this office,'' Irvin quipped.

But Black, 47, openly questions whether Irvin is still up for the wide variety of roles Georgia's agricultural commissioner must fill.

"We have a much better plan for the 21st century,'' Black said.

Black, former longtime head of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said he would be a more aggressive advocate for the state's farming interests and more in tune with the responsibilities of a modern agriculture department.

High-tech innovator

For one thing, Black promises to bring improvements in computer technology to the agency to make it easier for people to get the various licenses the department issues.

"I want to be the easiest agency in state government for the public to do business with,'' he said.

Black said he also would work to help Georgia's fledgling biofuels industry get off the ground, illustrating that point by using biodiesel in his campaign vehicle.

He said the department should play a larger role in educating Georgians about the importance of farming to the state's economy. Specifically, he said he'd like to see a mobile classroom tour Georgia schools.

Black said the agency should work more closely with the Georgia Department of Economic Development to promote the state's farm products.

"When Georgia goes on a trade mission, somebody on the state's team ought to be from agriculture,'' he said. "It's what we do best.''

Irvin said he has been involved in all of those issues - in some cases, well before they came into vogue.

He said he has traveled overseas many times to promote Georgia crops through trade agreements, including behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and to Communist Cuba.

"I was the first commissioner to argue for normalizing relations with the Soviets,'' he said. "Our trade relationship has made a friend out of Russia.''

Irvin said he has encouraged technological innovations at the department, bringing in laptop computers for field inspectors.

And he said he was promoting alternative fuels years ago.

"I was pushing it back when they used to call ethanol 'gasahol,' '' he said.

Food safety advocate

Irvin said he also has been a leader in efforts to ensure food safety. He was invited to Great Britain several years ago to share his expertise on how to deal with hoof-and-mouth disease during an outbreak among sheep there.

Irvin said he now is applying the lessons he learned then to avian flu.

Black agreed that Georgia has a good food safety plan. But he said the state must offer good training and competitive pay to attract and keep the best food inspectors.

Black said he opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants. He testified in August during a congressional hearing in Gainesville that committing more resources to border security would be key to solving the problem.

Irvin said it would be unrealistic to try to round up illegal immigrants and send them back to their home countries. He said to do so would cripple industries that rely on them in Georgia, including farming.

The Libertarian candidate in the race is Jack Cashin, who ran for governor on the party's ticket a decade ago and for U.S. Senate in 1998.

Cashin, 80, of Alpharetta said his goal is to get enough votes to force a runoff, which would make the other candidates give his views serious consideration.

His platform calls for legalizing industrial hemp in Georgia, a move he said would create a $2 billion industry.

"It's a fast-growing plant that requires little moisture and has 25,000 uses,'' he said.

Cashin said another way to pump more money into the state's economy would be to legalize pari-mutuel betting.

His interest in the race comes naturally. Cashin runs a horse farm in Cherokee County.