ATLANTA - Four years ago, Sonny Perdue became the first Republican elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction.
Now, the former state senator from Bonaire has an even more unique opportunity. On Nov. 7, Perdue, 59, could become the first GOP governor in Georgia history to win re-election.
First, however, he will have to get by two challengers: Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee, and Libertarian candidate Garrett Michael Hayes.
Perdue enjoys several advantages in the race, not the least of which is timing.
When he took office in January 2003 after upsetting incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes, money was tight. The state was mired in a recession that sent tax revenues plunging for two years in a row.
Now, Georgia's economy is humming on all cylinders and the state's coffers are brimming. During the summer, Perdue reported a fiscal year-end surplus of $580 million.
"Governors aren't the ones who cause that,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "But if it happens on your watch, you get the benefit of happy voters.''
Macro-economic trends aside, Perdue is taking credit for putting the state's fiscal house in order.
The governor's quick fix for a projected $640 million shortfall only worked partially. Legislative Democrats and even some Republicans balked at most of the tax increases Perdue sought during the 2003 session, including hiking the state's liquor tax and freezing the homestead tax relief program that Barnes had begun.
Perdue ended up settling for a smaller increase in tobacco taxes than he had proposed.
But the governor's long term plans to restructure the budget process paid off. While he was cutting spending across the board, he also was forcing state agencies to justify their budget requests program by program, with the aid of a commission of business leaders he created to look for ways to deliver services more efficiently.
"We lived within our means and turned that deficit into a surplus,'' Perdue said.
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen praised Perdue for meeting the constitutional mandate to balance the budget without seriously affecting services or taxpayers.
"No parks were closed, no state employees were laid off and not a corporation or individual had their taxes raised,'' said Keen, R-St. Simons Island. "The governor deserves the highest marks for management.''
But Perdue's critics say his budget cuts have had devastating consequences, particularly in education and health care. Those reductions have become a major part of Taylor's case against the
After declining to endorse either Barnes or Perdue in 2002, the Georgia Association of Educators is supporting Taylor this year.
Jeff Hubbard, the association's president, said the $1 billion in additional spending on education the governor has pumped into Georgia public schools since taking office is mostly operational and maintenance money, not instruction.
He said the $1.25 billion in cuts Perdue has imposed in the K-12 per-pupil funding formula does affect the classrooms and has forced about 100 local school districts to raise property taxes to make up for the loss in state aid.
"They've said repeatedly they want a world class education system in Georgia regardless of where your child lives,'' Hubbard said. "But if you're not willing to invest more fully in these children now, you're setting them up for failure later.''
The main beef with Perdue's health care policies centers around his decision to save money by moving 1.2 million Medicaid patients into managed care.
The governor has cited statistics showing that Medicaid is eating up an ever larger share of state spending and would bust the budget in time unless something is done.
Since the initiative began in June, doctors and hospitals have complained that they're not getting paid on time, while patients say managed care companies are denying them medically necessary care.
The squeakiest wheels have been parents of disabled children whose therapy visits are being capped.
"Thousands of Georgia children are losing Medicaid because of these policy changes,'' said Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate. "People are suffering serious consequences.''
While hospital administrators worried about being paid on time are concerned about the new Medicaid program, they're pleased with Perdue on the whole.
Joseph Parker, president of the Georgia Hospital Association said Perdue played a big part in passing legislation last year capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a longtime priority for the organization.
"I'm absolutely convinced that without the governor's leadership and that of legislative leaders, we wouldn't have passed the strong tort reform bill that we have,'' Parker said.
Tort reform was part of an agenda that Republicans began enacting after taking over the House in the 2004 elections, which gave the GOP full control of the General Assembly. Neither Perdue nor legislative Republicans had much success during his first two years, when only the Senate was in GOP hands.
The tort reform measure was followed by passage of Republican-sponsored bills targeting illegal immigrants and sex offenders and putting new restrictions on abortion and local governments' ability to condemn private property.
"We did exactly what we said we were going to do,'' Keen said. "When you do what you say ... the voters respond.''
The eminent domain bill was an accomplishment that appealed to small businesses and contributed to Perdue's endorsement by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said David Raynor, state chapter director for the NFIB. After all, the poster child in Georgia for protecting private property rights was a flower shop in Stockbridge that was being eyed by the city.
Raynor also praised Perdue for supporting legislation allowing small businesses to offer affordable no-frills insurance coverage to their workers as an alternative to no coverage, and for issuing an executive order instructing state agencies to appoint liaisons to work with small businesses to avoid unnecessary regulations.
"Each one of these has made it easier for small employers to grow their businesses,'' Raynor said. "Increased employment is a component of that.''
Indeed, job creation is a strong suit for Perdue. He said the state has added 244,000 jobs since he took office, the latest plum being the Kia automotive plant that broke ground this month in Troup County.
With the economy in good shape, Taylor has focused his fire elsewhere, on Perdue's budget cuts and ethics.
In his TV ads, the lieutenant governor has hit Perdue hard for buying property in Florida in 2004 from a developer he had appointed to a state board the year before, land Taylor claims actually is worth $40 million because it's near Walt Disney World.
Taylor also has raised suspicions about a retroactive $100,000 property tax break Perdue received through a provision in a tax bill inserted late in the legislative process by a leading Republican ally.
The governor said the tax bill was requested by the Department of Revenue to bring Georgia law into line with other states.
Denying Taylor's claim that the tax break was designed specifically to benefit the governor, Perdue said the first time he found out he would qualify for it was when his tax accountant told him.
"Every single Georgian benefits from this,'' he said.
Charges won't stick
Although Perdue dropped six points in one poll after Taylor's ads began airing, the land deal and tax break apparently aren't moving voters. The lieutenant governor has been stuck for months in the low 30s in most polls.
More than good timing is working for Perdue. There's also the growing popularity of the Republican Party among Georgia voters, even in a year when Democrats appear to gaining momentum in the rest of the country.
Bullock said Perdue also has helped himself by not rocking the boat. He said previous Georgia governors who have sought to make sweeping changes were punished at the polls.
Barnes was run out of office after his education reforms irritated teachers and his ill-fated plan to build the Northern Arc upset property owners across a huge swath of suburban Atlanta.
Zell Miller barely won reelection in 1994 after he alienated Christian conservatives by starting a state lottery and angered rural white voters by trying to get rid of the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag, a move that Barnes later pulled off to his political detriment.
Bullock puts Perdue in a class with former Govs. George Busby and Joe Frank Harris, who were less aggressive in pushing change. Both were reelected handily.
"When governors make changes, by definition, you shake things up,'' Bullock said "People who have been comfortable in the past tend to become less comfortable.''