December 17, 2013

A text message threat?

Deal staffer’s note to Pennington camp called ‘a show of arrogance’

When Dalton Mayor David Pennington started his campaign for governor six months ago, he emphasized three major issues — the economy, education and ethics, with the economy at the top of that list.

But he says over the past few weeks, ethics has been the top issue that people ask about when he speaks before groups across the state.

Several media outlets report that a grand jury has served subpoenas on a number of current and former employees of Georgia’s state ethics commission regarding a complaint against Gov. Nathan Deal, whom Pennington will challenge in next year’s Republican primary.

“A lot of people have been asking about that, and ethics has really become our top issue,” Pennington said. “Deal has been going around telling people he’s the only one who can beat (Democratic candidate and state senator) Jason Carter in the general election. Well, I tell them that we better make sure that the person we nominate doesn’t have any ethical time bombs that will blow up before the general election.”

That message has apparently angered some of Deal’s supporters.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway and the website Peach Pundit reported Monday that Deal’s gubernatorial chief of staff Chris Riley allegedly sent a text to Pennington’s campaign chairman, Dalton businessman Phil Neff, saying that if Pennington “wants to throw rocks, he shouldn’t live in a glass house. Out of respect for you (Neff), I have withheld.”

Neff, who has long been active in Republican politics, said he has known Riley for many years, noting that Riley worked for Deal when he represented the Dalton area in Congress. Neff said he was surprised to receive the text.

“It’s politics,” Neff said. “He was trying to send a message that, ‘You guys are not a challenge to us. We are the incumbent, and we have all the power. Don’t throw stones because you may not be able to withstand the onslaught.’ Was it a threat? I don’t know. But it was a show of arrogance.”

Riley did not immediately return a telephone message at his office Tuesday afternoon.

Ken Ellinger, associate professor of political science at Dalton State College, calls the text a “rookie mistake.”

“There’s no way to interpret that text but as a threat,” Ellinger said. “That isn’t something that the governor’s chief of staff, who is paid by the taxpayers, should be doing. If he wants to get involved in the campaign, he should resign his post and join the campaign staff.”

Pennington said he wasn’t sure what the text referred to but he said it was telling it came from the governor’s staff and not his campaign.

Pennington’s campaign posted the text along with a press release on its website and Facebook page. Ellinger said Riley should have anticipated that.

“The way this is usually done is face to face or to have some intermediary deliver the message so you have some deniability,” he said. “By sending a text that Pennington’s campaign can show everybody, it just sends the message that Deal’s people are worried, that maybe there’s something there they don’t want people looking into. And it gives Pennington a credibility that he frankly hasn’t earned yet.”

Pennington said he isn’t letting the dustup with Deal’s staff divert him from building his campaign.

“This first six months we’ve been out there speaking and trying to build up our ground game. We’ve been very pleased with how that is going. We’ve had hundreds of people across the state of Georgia sign up to help our campaign,” Pennington said. “We thought we’d still be begging for meetings. But we’ve been overwhelmed. I can’t get to all the places I’ve been invited to.”

He recently spoke before a Republican group in Fayetteville. It was his first campaign visit to the city, but in November he tied Deal in a straw poll at a joint meeting of the Fayette and Coweta County Republican parties.

The first campaign finance report comes at the end of the year, and Pennington says he is “happy with where we are.” Pennington has said in the past he has raised several hundred thousand dollars. But he says the real fundraising drive will begin in 2014.

He’ll have an advantage then because the General Assembly’s session starts in January and state law bars Deal and state school Superintendent John Barge, the only other announced candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, from raising money while it is in session. Candidates who do not hold state office, such as Pennington, face no such restrictions.

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