• What: A live debate between Republican gubernatorial candidates David Pennington and John Barge
• When: 7-8 p.m. Wednesday
• Who: Georgia Public Broadcasting in partnership with the Atlanta Press Club for the Loudermilk–Young Debate Series
• Where: Atlanta
• On TV: Georgia Public Broadcasting
ABOUT DAVID PENNINGTON
• Experience: Former mayor of Dalton, Ga., founder of Advanced Insurance Strategies and third-generation small-business owner
• Family: He and wife Pam, a former schoolteacher, have a son and daughter and grandchildren. Pennington’s family tree goes back in Georgia to 1751.
• Education: Economics major and graduate of the University of Georgia
During a live TV debate Wednesday night to be broadcast throughout Georgia, David Pennington will ask incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal a question.
That is, Pennington will direct a question to Deal’s empty podium, because the governor declined to participate in the debate on Georgia Public Broadcasting with his two Republican primary challengers: Pennington, the former mayor of Dalton, Ga., and Georgia Superintendent of Schools John Barge.
“I’ve narrowed it down to two questions,” Pennington, 61, said Monday morning. “It will be hard-hitting, I assure you of that.”
Considered a long shot, Pennington trails Deal in fundraising. He had about $200,000 at the end of March compared to Deal’s war chest of $4 million. Barge was last with $15,000.
Pennington concedes better name recognition to Deal, a first-term governor who previously served since 1992 in the U.S. House of Representatives representing North Georgia.
But Pennington, a tea party favorite who stepped down as mayor on March 3 to campaign full time for governor, is bullish about his chances in the Georgia primary a week from today.
“[Deal] hasn’t done any campaigning. He runs TV ads, that’s it,” Pennington said. “He’s betting that Georgia Republicans will just sleep through this election. Our campaign is the wake-up call.”
Jennifer Talaber, a spokeswoman for Deal, said the governor is unavailable for the debate because of a prior commitment.
But he’s out there leading every day, Talaber said via email.
“A debate isn’t necessary for Georgians to learn where he stands,” she said. “His record of job creation, cutting taxes, saving the HOPE scholarship, criminal justice reform and the deepening of the Port of Savannah stands on its own.”
Pennington would be happy to get Deal in a run-off, which will occur if the incumbent governor gets less than 50 percent of the vote.
“It looks like it’s going to be a really low turnout,” Pennington said. “Our voters, they vote.”
It’s possible — but unlikely — that Deal will be drawn into a runoff by his two challengers, said Tom Crawford, editor of the Georgia Report, an online news service that covers Georgia politics.
“It’s mathematically possible that David could push him into a run-off,” Crawford said. “It’s highly unlikely — that’s my gut feeling.”
The primary will more likely show Deal’s strength against Democrat Jason Carter in November’s general election.
“If he’s pulled under 60 percent, that could be an indication that’s he’s not in such great shape for a general election race,” Crawford said of Deal.
Improving education through local control, reforming welfare, supporting right to life and protecting the right to keep and bear arms are some of the issues Pennington has highlighted in his campaign.
One thing that sets the candidates apart is Pennington’s vow to eliminate Georgia’s income tax. During his six years as Dalton’s mayor, Pennington said, he cut sales and property taxes by almost 30 percent.
The tax cuts saved Dalton taxpayers millions, he said, and resulted in the Northwest Georgia city having the nation’s ninth-fastest rate of income growth.
Services didn’t suffer, Pennington said, because his background as founder of a small insurance business helped him wring out wasteful government spending and cut costs. As proof of that, Pennington pointed to the opening in January 2012 of an $8 million community center that is home to the county’s Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
“People need to understand that limited government does not mean limited possibilities,” said Pennington.
Pennington once supported Deal, donated money to him and was chairman of Deal’s Whitfield County campaign when Deal ran for Congress. Pennington has harsh words now for Deal, including questioning the governor’s ethics and accusing him of turning Georgia into a “welfare state.”
“He’s not who he says he is — period,” Pennington said.
Pennington spoke Monday to the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, which he said was the third liberal-leaning group he’s addressed during his campaign.
Pennington said he had wide support as Dalton’s mayor, including from Latinos, blacks and Democrats, and he gets applause from liberal audiences.
“Everybody likes to label me. I’m a limited-government professional businessperson,” he said.
Whoever wins the Republican primary will have to face Democrat Jason Carter, a state senator since 2010 whose 42nd District includes portions of Atlanta. Carter’s claim to fame is that he’s former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson. With Carter’s name recognition, relatively conservative voting record, and access to donors, some polls show Deal in a close race with Carter in November.
Pennington thinks he’d be competitive against Carter. The two met once, Pennington said, and they had the following exchange:
“This came straight from Jason Carter, ‘I would prefer to run against Nathan Deal than you,’” he said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.