Gov. Nathan Deal hasn’t done anything really bad, says Dalton Mayor David Pennington.
“The problem is that he hasn’t done anything really good at a time when the Georgia economy has struggled much more than the national economy has,” Pennington said.
Pennington says he is mulling a Republican primary challenge next year to Deal and will decide on whether to run in the next 60 days.
“I’ve been called by quite a few people from across the state,” Pennington said.
Pennington campaigned vigorously last year across Georgia against referendums that would have created 10-year, 1 percent regional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOSTs) to fund transportation programs. Those referendums lost in nine of 12 regions, including locally, and Pennington said people he met during that battle have been urging him to run. He says he currently has 15,000 people on an email list that receive periodic issues statements from him.
“Obviously, these people are dissatisfied. But when you challenge a Republican governor in a Republican primary, when you challenge any sitting governor in a primary, that’s a tall mountain to climb,” Pennington said.
Pennington said he will be trying to determine how deep his support is.
“We have to be able to see some logical path to winning,” he said.
Brian Robinson, Deal’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said Deal is confident he could turn back any challenge by Pennington.
“He (Pennington) will find it will be very difficult to raise money to run against a popular incumbent. Gov. Deal has extremely high favorability ratings with Republican voters. Those voters will determine the primary winner,” Robinson said. “We have reduced the size of government. We have cut taxes. We have reduced the marriage penalty. We have held the line of K-12 spending, and we’ve done it all while keeping a balanced budget and maintaining the state’s AAA bond rating.”
But Pennington says Deal and the GOP-controlled General Assembly haven’t done enough to deal with the state’s economy. He points to a number of economic data showing how poorly the state is doing, including a recent study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development that ranked Georgia 50th in the nation in financial security.
Pennington says he doesn’t sense any urgency to deal with those issues. He points to the failure of the General Assembly to pass comprehensive tax reform during the past three sessions.
“If you look at the states around us, they either do not have an income tax or they are looking at eliminating their income tax,” he said. “Alabama is the only other state in this region that isn’t at least looking at eliminating the state income tax. We are already uncompetitive. As these states move further in that direction we become even more uncompetitive.”
Pennington said he would like to end Georgia’s state income tax.
“The state income tax is the most onerous tax for small business because we have to pay it on our personal income tax returns. Small businesses produce 65 percent of the net new jobs in America, and right now we aren’t producing enough new jobs in Georgia to even handle the population growth,” he said.
Pennington said improving education is vital to growing the economy.
“We need to decentralize education. Local systems should have more control than they currently have. Yes, you’ll have failures, but you’ll have a lot more successes than failures,” he said.
Dalton State College Associate Professor Ken Ellinger says it would be difficult for Pennington to beat Deal in the primary.
“I don’t think the Democrats can beat Deal either, unless there’s some sort of scandal of major proportions. I think Deal could even survive a minor scandal,” he said.
But Ellinger said Pennington could be able to get Deal to address the issues Pennington believes are important.
“If they are both sharing a stage, maybe he can try to get Deal to respond to his criticisms about lack of tax reform and the lack of aggressive steps to grow the economy,” Ellinger said.
Both Deal and Pennington have worked closely with tea party groups. Deal was awarded a constitutional defender award from the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. And Pennington was lauded by several tea party activists for his efforts to defeat the regional transportation SPLOSTs.
Naomi Swanson, coordinator of the Dalton Tea Party, said Georgia tea party groups typically don’t endorse candidates.
“Tea party members are interested in ideas and issues, and I think either Mayor Pennington or Gov. Deal could do well,” she said.
But Ellinger said it may be difficult for Pennington to break through to voters.
“He’s going to have to work hard and be creative to be heard because I don’t think he can count on the media to cover a campaign they are going to view as quixotic,” Ellinger said. “He’s going to have to put some miles on his car, go to every single candidates forum. Deal can send some third-level staffer to these small towns. Pennington is going to have to go himself.”