Gubernatorial candidates schmooze in Gwinnett

LAWRENCEVILLE - More than 100 Gwinnettians had lunch with a man who could be Georgia's next governor - in competing Duluth events on Wednesday.

It's a sign that the race is on for the state's top politician and of the role Georgia's second-largest county will play in the campaigns.

"Gwinnett will play a pivotal role," state Rep. Melvin Everson, who attended one of the events, said. "I would go so far as to say Gwinnett will be the county that will put the next governor in office. Do not ignore Gwinnett."

About 100 people, including Everson, attended the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce luncheon featuring state Sen. Eric Johnson, while another two dozen or so listened to Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine at a Duluth Kiwanis Club event about five miles away.

"I hope as the campaign goes along I will earn your trust," Johnson told the crowd of business leaders. "If I earn your trust, I'll earn your vote."

Oxendine had headlined a previous Chamber event, and Secretary of State Karen Handel, who is also seeking the Republican nomination, will address the group next month.

"All counties are important ... (but) Gwinnett is one of the most populated counties," Oxendine said. "It's a key, and of course, it's my home. ... It would be great for Gwinnett to have a governor from Gwinnett County."

Johnson, an architect from Savannah, said he is in Gwinnett once a week building his campaign.

"Clearly it's important (politically), but it's also important to the state," he said of Gwinnett. "It's an economic generator of jobs and revenues for the state. It's important whether we win or not."

Both politicians hit the campaign's hot topics Wednesday, with Oxendine discussing his successes managing the insurance office and Johnson talking about legislative leadership. They both addressed transportation, water, health care and tax reform proposals, with Johnson also touting his proposal to offer educational choice by way of vouchers.

The GOP's other candidates - Handel, state Rep. Austin Scott, Congressman Nathan Deal and Ray McBerry - have made appeals to Gwinnett voters, as have many of the Democrats - former Gov. Roy Barnes, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Gen. David Poythress, state Rep. DuBose Porter and Ray City Mayor Carl Camon.

Raymer Sale, a businessman who hosts free public events as the head of the chamber's governmental affairs committee, said voters should have plenty of opportunities to meet the candidates over the next year.

"I expect the closer we get to the campaign, they'll be even more visible," he said. "We can all hear what they've got to say and select from that the person who will carry the torch."

Oxendine and Johnson have some of Gwinnett's top politicians campaigning on their behalf.

Commission Chairman Charles Bannister, a personal friend, is helping Oxendine, while Sheriff Butch Conway and Sens. Don Balfour and Renee Unterman are heading efforts for Johnson.

"The race is on," said Michael Sullivan, a lawyer who attended the Chamber event. While he has been involved in past political elections, Sullivan said he hasn't chosen sides in the 2010 race.

"It speaks to the importance of Gwinnett to any candidate running for governor," he said of the competing events. "I expect they will be here often."