The Jolt: MARTA becomes the punching bag in a bellwether House race

Johnny Isakson’s decision to leave the U.S. Senate has overshadowed a small state House race that could serve as a 2020 prototype in so many ways.

The vote is Tuesday, the day after Labor Day – which means a small turnout and a race that could be decided by only a few hundred votes. A runoff would be held Oct. 1.

Three Republicans and one Democrat are vying to fill the Coweta/Fayette County seat abandoned by David Stover, R-Newnan, this summer:

-- Marcy Westmoreland Sakrison, a Republican, is the daughter of former congressman Lynn Westmoreland. She skipped a Coweta County GOP forum for House District 71 candidates earlier this month – a sign of a local party split between establishment Republicans and more conservative insurgents.

Both House Speaker David Ralston and Speaker pro tem Jan Jones have donated to her campaign. A campaign flyer has her leading on education – and saying nice things about Gov. Brian Kemp’s pay raise for teachers.

-- Philip Singleton, a Republican, is an Army veteran and former congressional candidate. In that forum mentioned above, Singleton walked up to the edge when asked if he would support David Ralston’s re-election as speaker, but did not precisely pledge his opposition. Others, including WSB Radio pundit, Erick Erickson have done that for him – endorsing Singleton as a Ralston opponent.

In one of his mailers, Singleton alleges that “big-name Atlanta politicians and lobbyists are trying to expand MARTA to Coweta and Fayette counties.”

Then there are the vague, undated headlines that accompany the sentiment. The AJC’s digitized archives go back to 1983.

"After recent killings, how safe is MARTA?" is a phrase that doesn’t turn up in a search. But "Audit: MARTA spends $50 million too much" was indeed an AJC headline – in 2012.

Now, as for “Lawmaker’s lobbying on MARTA contract raises ethics concern.” We doubt that WorldNews.com even knows what MARTA is. But the headline is real, and it originated with the AJC. It dates to 2019, and references the activities of former state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Cobb County.

Further, MARTA is very, very specific about going only where it is invited. Neither would its bylaws even allow it to go into Coweta or Fayette. Any significant transit operation – whether bus or rail -- in the area would operate under the new state authority known as “the ATL.”

Even so, the issue appears to resonate among those who fear the encroachment of metro Atlanta. All four candidates, including Sakrison, have expressed  their opposition.

As for Singleton, it’s also worth noting that Speaker Ralston has said kind things when it comes to the expansion of commuter rail in metro Atlanta.

“We don’t want it, we don’t need it, and it’s definitely not something I would support,” Singleton said at that forum. ‘I’m all about preserving the culture of our community.” Singleton would also pull Coweta and Fayette counties “out of the ATL.”

-- Nina Blackwelder, a Republican and pharmacist, is a three-year resident of Newnan who is also a member of the Coweta County Sustainable Housing Taskforce. She has campaigned as a small government conservative. She, too, would oppose MARTA expansion into Coweta and Fayette counties.

-- Jill Prouty is the sole Democrat in the contest and a Peachtree City librarian. She is a former Republican, opposes the new state anti-abortion law, but would also loosen certificate of need regulations that have complicated the establishment of a local mental health facility. She, too, says “MARTA is not the answer.”

Prouty is betting that the three Republicans will split enough of the vote to allow her to claim a berth in the runoff. She was at that Coweta County GOP forum, and came in a distant second behind Singleton. If that happens, it could be interpreted aas a sign that Republicans might have something to worry about next year.

But an all-Republican runoff between Sakrison and Singleton would have its own plotline. It could become an even sharper referendum on Speaker Ralston. 

***

Twenty-four hours after announcing that he would leave the U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson on Thursday opened his office to a parade of journalists seeking details. A quick overview of what he told us:

-- He intends to remain active in GOP: “I’m not going to be a good spectator. I’m going to be a good participant. Just because I don’t have a title, doesn’t mean I’ve taken off my Republican boots.”

-- Come the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, he’ll be in a pew at Ebenezer Baptist Church: “I’ve been there for the last 25 years. I’m not going to stop now.”

-- On the lack of Republican outreach to African-Americans and other minorities: “Hopefully the things that I did set an example….You can’t just take people for granted. We’re a very diverse country. We’ve got some of the greatest minds in the world and they come in all sizes and shapes and colors and heritage. The more you judge people by things rather than by their character, the more you get in trouble.”

-- His priorities now include making sure that federal funding for the dredging of the Port of Savannah is completed, and making sure that hurricane disaster relief funds finally get to south Georgia farmers. “Those people have waited a long time,” he said. Two more federal judicial appointments in Georgia also need to be pushed through.

Isakson doesn’t have much time: “I’m not counting, but four months and two days.”

-- On whether he’ll offer Gov. Brian Kemp advice on who should replace him: “I told him yesterday, when I delivered the letter, that I would be available to answer any question he might have or consult with him in any way. But he’s the governor, and that’s his job to do. My opinion is better when it’s in response to a question, with someone ask me rather than me opining voluntarily.”

***

Over at WABE (90.1FM), Jim Burress tracked down former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, who was at Ted Turner’s ranch in Montana. Nunn offered no clues about whether his daughter, Michelle Nunn, who lost a 2014 Senate bid to David Perdue, would enter the race for Isakson’s Senate seat. But Nunn said race’s status as a special election – in which no primaries cull the candidates – could be attractive to moderates in both parties. Said Nunn:

“This is a direction that I’ve been interested in for some time, because I think our primaries now are working to polarize the country. Extreme positions are taken in the primary – this is going to be a different deal. I’m hoping it brings more leverage in the party to people who are what I call the common-sense middle.”

***

We have a major legal drama developing in the state Capitol. Jonathan Ringel at The Daily Report writes that the long-time political director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association resigned last week, in a letter warning that the organization had screwed up by promoting a rival.

Bill Clark’s letter said that elevating Caroline McLean to a new chief executive post that would oversee the group’s PAC was an “all-but-fatal decision.” He also predicted she’d abandon a bipartisan approach and side with Democrats. 

McLean called Clark’s warnings “completely false” and Ringel noted that the association’s president, Dan Snipes, is a Republican. Read more here.

***

Our AJC colleague Meris Lutz has an interesting interview with Carl Ware, who was once Coca-Cola’s highest-ranking African American executive. He says the company is behind in guiding blacks and women to senior leadership positions that would put them in line to be Coke’s president and CEO.

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