Surprise state House win creates a new Georgia Democratic star

Georgia Democrats may have found a new star in Taylor Bennett, the 29-year-old former Georgia Tech quarterback who scored a surprising victory in a conservative-leaning northeast Atlanta House seat last night.

Bennett won with 2,714 votes, 54.53 percent, to Republican J. Max Davis' 2,263 votes, 45.47 percent.

Davis was a flawed candidate who lost last night's special election for many reasons, including harassment accusations in Brookhaven and a nasty split within his own party. But for all his issues, he had a few huge advantages: High name recognition as Brookhaven's first mayor and the wholehearted logistical and financial support of a cast of GOP figures, including Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston.

Bennett notched his convincing win after campaigning against the "religious liberty" proposal now before the Legislature. Bennett's mother is gay, and he cited the debate over the current measure as a reason he jumped in the race to succeed Mike Jacobs, a Republican who also fought to derail the bill.

"The Republican Party has basically stated that they’re going to revive that bill,” Bennett told the AJC earlier about his decision to run. “I wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch that happen. That’s the hair-trigger reason why I wanted to jump in.” Here's an interview Bennett had with Scott Slade of WSB Radio back in July:

Could Tuesday's outcome make other suburban lawmakers think twice about supporting the legislation? A debate was already raging on Twitter last night over the implications of the election.

We called state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, this morning to get his reaction to the Republican defeat. "You have to give the Democrats a lot of credit. They pulled out all the stops to take the seat," he said.

The House District 80 election shifts control of the Fulton County House delegation to Democrats, who now hold a 13-12 advantage. But you better believe that there's already talk about a meeting of the House Reapportionment Committee to redraw a few lines to address that.

Meanwhile, two all-GOP affairs were also decided last night.

Businessman Shaw Blackmon defeated Larry Walker - the son of the former House majority leader - in the race to replace Larry O'Neal in House District 146. And economist Clay Pirkle bested Horace Hudgins, the ex-mayor of Ocilla, in the contest to fill the seat left vacant by Jay Roberts.

Overall, the House Republican caucus membership now stands at 118, two shy of a two-thirds majority. Democrats have 61. Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville is the only independent.

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Georgia has joined 16 other states in a legal challenge claiming the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency illegally invalidated air quality protection plans.

The filing by Attorney General Sam Olens claims an EPA rule issued in June requiring 35 states to revise their "State Implementation Plans" will increase costs for industrial plants while offering only a "negligible" environmental impact. It claims that the new rule would require Georgia to change an already-approved plan to comply with air pollution standards after the Sierra Club settled a separate lawsuit.

"Everyone who has seen a truck move after a red light understands this issue," said Olens. "It is important for Georgia power plants and industries to keep living up to their responsibilities on overall emissions, but this new mandate is simply the result of EPA working with the Sierra Club in yet another example of 'sue and settle' decision-making."

This is not to be confused with the Obama administration's recent Clean Power Plan restrictions on existing power plants. Georgia has yet to challenge that one, after getting a break on the final rule.

The challenge to the "State Implementation Plans" rewrites have been brewing for a while. An Open Records Act request revealed that Gov. Nathan Deal had penned a draft letter raising objections to the changes months ago. The final letter was sent on July 28, and it said the proposal "could create a serious threat to electricity generation reliability, especially during extreme weather seasons."

"Of even greater concern to us are cost increases on the public," Deal wrote in the letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. "The increase in energy costs for job creators and employers is concerning enough, but we believe endorsing cost increases on low-income families and senior citizens, those who can least afford it, is irresponsible and careless."

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Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols is still no fan of that rule, as he writes in today's premium editions.

From his op-ed:

I consider myself anything but environmentally reckless. My family owns three electric cars, put solar thermal on our house to heat our water and turn our air conditioning units off every summer day from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. in order to relieve pressure on the grid. We use E85 in our non-electric car, and I created the Alternative Fueled Vehicle Roadshow that travels the East Coast. My point is: I think the solution to our energy issues can be resolved here at home without federal intervention and without guilt from the White House.

But it is not just guilt — there’s also a hammer. That hammer is the EPA — the infamous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that churns out rules like the Varsity makes hotdogs. These rules are frequently challenged, but usually implemented by utilities, and paid for by ratepayers. Later, a court may overturn them after the money has been spent.

Read the rest of it here.

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"As long as I sit in that office over there, the film tax credit is perfectly safe."

So says House Speaker David Ralston, who spoke to new UGA faculty members at the Capitol on Tuesday. One reason why: His daughter is in the industry. And "she probably makes more than I do," he quipped.

He also told the professors what it feels like to have a target on his back.

"Robocalls are dumped in my district on a daily basis, to the point where my mom calls and says, 'What are you doing down there? I tried to talk to the man, but he just kept talking.'"

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Remember when the Georgia Democrats stripped the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their big annual dinner? It's a growing effort nationally, and the New York Times' Jonathan Martin has a fascinating step-back piece on it:

For all the attention this summer to the fight over the Confederate battle flag, the less noticed moves by Democratic parties to remove Jefferson and Jackson from their official identity underscore one of the most consequential trends of American politics: Democrats’ shift from a union-powered party organized primarily around economic solidarity to one shaped by racial and sexual identity.

The parallel forces of class and identity, at times in tension and at times in unison, have defined the Democratic Party in recent decades. But the country’s changing demographics, the diverse nature of President Obama’s coalition and the animating energy of the Black Lives Matter movement have also thrust fundamental questions about race, gender and economic equality to the center of the Democratic presidential race. ...

Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, said that the state party stripped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of the dinner to tell “the entire story of our party.”

“The best political parties are ones that reflect their core values and celebrate their members,” she said.

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Conservatives are seizing upon a comment from presidential hopeful Donald Trump to CNN on Tuesday that could end up being more problematic for his Republican primary hopes than any Fox News feud. It came from a discussion with host Chris Cuomo about defunding Planned Parenthood:

TRUMP: This is what I would do, if the time came, I would look at the individual things that they do and maybe some of the things are good, and maybe -- I know a lot of the things are bad. But certainly the abortion aspect of it should not be funded by government.

CUOMO: So you would take a look at it before defunding it. That's what's being asked for right now. Many in your party are doing the opposite. They're saying defund it, then look. You'd say look at it first?

TRUMP: I would look at the good aspects of it and I would also look because I'm sure they do some things properly and good and good for women. I would look at that. I would look at other aspects, also. But we have to take care of women. We have to absolutely take care of women. The abortion aspect of Planned Parenthood should not be funded.

Considering that the law already bans federal money from going to abortions and Planned Parenthood says it keeps its federal funds for health screenings separate from its abortion practice, that suggests the status quo would continue for the organization in a Trump administration.

Here's what Planned Parenthood had to say, via the Daily Beast:

“Donald Trump seems to have realized that banning all abortions, shutting down the government, and defunding Planned Parenthood are extreme positions that are way too far outside the mainstream for even him to take,” said spokesman Eric Ferrero in a statement.

“We hope that the rest of the GOP field will wake up and reconsider their extreme and unpopular positions on defunding preventive care, abortion bans, and the other economic issues that women and their families care about,” Ferrero continued.

In other words, Trump is Planned Parenthood’s favorite Republican presidential candidate right now (or their least un-favorite).

On Tuesday night, Trump sought to clean up the mess with a statement to Breitbart News that read, in part:

"While Planned Parenthood is engaging in the despicable practice of abortion — in addition to then selling aborted baby body parts to the highest bidder — the organization should receive no taxpayer dollars. "

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U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, weighed in on the Trump phenomenon with the Macon Telegraph, saying there are several candidates he'd rather see than his party's polling leader:

“He seems to be more interested in having fun right now than specifically answering questions and giving us a plan to move the economy and the country forward,” Scott said. “I think we have several candidates that truly can govern and lead the country towards the economic growth that we need. That requires being able to give specific solutions and articulate it and he hasn’t done that.”

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Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave a big speech about Iraq at the Reagan library in California. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney points out the crosscurrents that have brought Iraq to the fore of yet another presidential campaign:

With his speech, Mr. Bush found himself in a position of going after Mrs. Clinton on an issue in which many Republicans argue she is vulnerable — but at the risk of reminding voters of what Republicans see as one of his own great potential weaknesses: his last name. Mr. Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, led the United States into war in Iraq in 2003 and, when it was going badly in 2006, ordered the commitment of additional forces there in what came to be known as the surge. His father, the elder President George Bush, ordered the nation’s first invasion of Iraq in 1990.

At the same time, it put Mrs. Clinton — who lost the nomination to Mr. Obama in no small part in 2008 because she had supported the Iraq war while he opposed it — in a situation of defending how Mr. Obama sought to end the war there.

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Speaking of Hillary Clinton, her email controversy shows no signs of going away. From the Associated Press:

Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign casts her decision to turn over her personal email server to the Justice Department as cooperating with investigators. Her Republican critics suggest that the move and new revelations about classified information points to her malfeasance as secretary of state.

Two emails that traversed Clinton's personal system were subsequently given one of the government's highest classification ratings, a Republican lawmaker said.

Federal investigators have begun looking into the security of Clintons' email setup amid concerns from the inspector general for the intelligence community that classified information may have passed through the system. There is no evidence she used encryption to prevent prying eyes from accessing the emails or her personal server.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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