Charlie Harper: The Governor and the Super

August 27, 2013 

The 2014 campaign season has been running in full force since late January, courtesy of Senator Saxby Chambliss' announcement that he would not seek a third term. The resulting dominoes have opened up campaigns in three Congressional districts, with each of those incumbents' decisions to seek higher office opening up various races for state House and Senate. Such is political life when there is the opportunity to move up.

Campaigns for statewide offices, by contrast, have been virtually non-existent. Four years ago many of these offices were filled with newcomers. The governor, attorney general, secretary of state, labor commissioner, insurance commissioner, and commissioner of agriculture are all serving their first full terms in office. The opportunity to move up at this level was four years ago, and likely will be again in another four when a term-limited governor opens up another opportunity for advancing political careers.

And yet, there may be a slight ripple forming within this model for the statewide candidates, courtesy of State School Superintendent John Barge. Barge is being publicly coy about his future plans, but giving strong hints that he may decide that a run for governor is in his future - his immediate future.

Governor Deal has already drawn an opponent in Dalton Mayor David Pennington. Pennington, running on a platform that Georgia's economy should be doing better, has mostly tapped into a base of support from a crowd that maintains a large reservoir of anti-incumbent fervor. Admittedly, this is becoming a larger force within Republican political circles, but doesn't appear to be approaching any sort of critical mass that will cause the governor to begin losing sleep soon.

Barge himself was a late replacement for the position of school super, after Kathy Cox decided to leave her post for a position in Washington a week after Roger Hines -- her most credible announced opponent -- reversed himself and decided not to challenge for her position. Losing the incumbent and top challenger in a race a week before qualifying led to a scramble that ultimately delivered Barge as the top elected education official in the state.

The late addition to the otherwise generally well-known slate of statewide political officers has had the result that many quickly arranged marriages experience. It has been at times less than smooth.

Barge, who originally campaigned on the premise of supporting charter schools, campaigned against the 2012 constitutional amendment authorizing them. In May, Barge seemed to publicly change his support from Common Core standards to opposing them, leaving little cover for the other elected officials who had also been supporting this initiative that has its genesis with many Georgia Republicans.

As such, the GOP has found itself with its education leader that is on record opposing its signature prescription for fixing failing schools, while now giving credence to critics who want to reverse the curriculum rewrite that occurred under Cox and was codified into national voluntary standards with the direct help of Republican governors, including Georgia's Sonny Perdue.

The awkwardness has perhaps left Barge with few options, and while no opponent has officially announced a challenge to his position, rumors of candidate recruitment against him have been circulating since his opposition to the charter schools amendment. Meanwhile, this statewide elected official, who oversees the largest portion of Georgia's annual expenditures, showed no fundraising activity for the first half of 2013 and ended 2012 with just under $40,000 on hand.

Given the uneasy nature of working with the rest of the state's leadership on education and lack of activity to prepare groundwork for his own re-election, one could easily wonder what Barge is actually up to. Are his words about a possible gubernatorial run a sincere challenge to a governor who remains quite popular within most GOP circles, or perhaps the opportunity to earn media and name ID for an incumbent who has yet to solidify his own identity as an elected official?

What is motivating John Barge right now is likely known only to Barge. But drawing a contrast to the governor, while demonstrating a record that is out of step with GOP leadership on most educational issues, may have one other unintended consequence.

The governor and legislators always get an earful from constituents when there is a problem with Georgia's schools, yet it is another elected official -- the state school superintendent -- who has control of the policymaking entity that charts the course. There has been talk of making this position appointed, to consolidate accountability under the governor that often gets as much credit or blame from the voters.

John Barge's decision to play coy will not likely hurt the re-election chances of Gov. Nathan Deal. But it may give rise to open discussion of whether the position of state school superintendent should be elected at all.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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