December 28, 2013

Chambliss, Deen, Braves lead 2013 Ga. newsmakers


Associated Press

— ATLANTA — Georgia headlines in 2013 marked everything from tragedy and corruption to political surprises and new births.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced that he won’t seek a third term, kick-starting a busy 2014 election year for the state.

Famed television cook Paula Deen also saw her career take a turn, though it wasn’t voluntary, and the Atlanta Braves shocked baseball fans by announcing plans to leave downtown in favor of a new stadium in suburban Cobb County.

There were plenty of court cases to watch, from a widespread cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools to a trio of high-profile murder trials.

Here’s a look at the top stories in Georgia over the last 12 months.

Saxby Chambliss retirement — The Republican senator announced in January he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2014. The move set up a free-for-all Republican primary that will showcase the divide between tea party conservatives and the business establishment. Democrats hope a Republican melee opens the door for an upset in the general election.  Three sitting congressmen headline the Republican field. Democrats’ leading hopeful is Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.

Atlanta Public Schools corruption — In March, a Fulton County grand jury indicted former Atlanta Public Schools chief Beverly Hall and dozens of other administrators and teachers, accusing them of engineering a sweeping effort to falsify standardized test results. A massive trial is expected in 2014.

Braves to move; Falcons will stay — The Atlanta Braves had perhaps the most surprising move of the year. No, they didn’t win a playoff series. They just announced after months of secret talks with Cobb County leaders plans to move to a suburban stadium and leave downtown, where they’ve played since moving from Milwaukee in 1966. Cobb taxpayers will own the stadium and pay a significant portion of its construction cost and upkeep. The Braves’ departure aside, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed managed to keep the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons happy. He agreed for the city to cover part of the construction costs for a new retractable-roof stadium to replace the Georgia Dome. Both new stadiums are projected to open in 2017.

Sneiderman trial — In a tense, nationally televised hearing, DeKalb County prosecutors dropped murder charges against Andrea Sneiderman in the 2010 shooting death of her husband, but a jury later convicted the widow for lying about her relationship with the man who killed Rusty Sneiderman in 2010. A judge sentenced her to five years in prison.

Paula Deen — The famous cook and restaurateur from Savannah watched part of her empire crumble after damning testimony in a lawsuit accusing her of racial discrimination in the workplace. The suit never reached trial, but Deen’s admission that she previously used racial slurs and shared racially charged jokes damaged her brand and cost her business deals with the Food Network, Walmart and Target.

Baby stroller murder — On March 21, a Brunswick mother was pushing her 13-month-old son in a stroller when they were shot in an attempted robbery. Sherry West survived, but her baby, Antonio Santiago, died from a gunshot wound between his eyes. Five months later, a Cobb County jury convicted 18-year-old De’Marquise Elkins of murder. He was sentenced to life without parole. Elkins’ alleged accomplice, 15 years old at the time, awaits trial.

Eight-victim murder conviction — In October, a jury in Brunswick convicted Guy Heinze Jr. of killing his father and seven extended family members. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Ethics under the Gold Dome — In the spring, Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican leaders of the legislature pushed through an overhaul of Georgia’s ethics rules, for the first time setting caps on what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers. Within months, Deal was dogged by reports he and his inner circle interfered with the state Ethics Commission as it conducted a wide-ranging probe of the governor’s campaign. Deal denied wrongdoing, but it’s been enough to make several challengers think he’s vulnerable heading into his 2014 re-election attempt.

Deal likely will have to win a contested Republican primary. And State Sen. Jason Carter, grandson of the former president, has announced plans to seek the seat for Georgia Democrats. Two Georgia legislators, meanwhile, were indicted and later suspended from office.

DeKalb school board: Testing a contentious new state law for the first time, Gov. Deal removed several members of the DeKalb County school boards amid allegations of mismanagement and a threat of lost accreditation. He used the law to appoint replacements. The Georgia Supreme Court later upheld the law, rejecting arguments from challenges who said governor shouldn’t have the power to oust locally elected officials.

Panda twins: Zoo Atlanta celebrated the birth of giant panda twins in July. Following Chinese custom, they announced the names 100 days later. They are Mei Lun (pronounced “may loon”) and Mei Huan (may hwahn). The names come from an old Chinese saying for something magnificent, but hard to describe. The pair are the first ever twin panda cubs to survive in the United States.