Political signs are popping up in west Georgia. Campaign mailers are cluttering mailboxes. The race in the special election for the open seat in state Senate District 30 is off and running.
But Glenn Richardson, the once powerful Speaker of the House of Georgia, is still struggling at the starting line. By late-week, the man who once directed a quarter-million-dollar war chest and engineered a historic Republican takeover in the House, was still waiting to get his yard signs back from the printer.
There was a reason for the delay. “I had to have the money before I ordered them,” the Paulding County attorney said a bit sheepishly. “I’m not independently wealthy.”
In fact, he said, he’s pretty close to broke. Most months, he struggles to pay his mortgage. And campaign contributions are not exactly flowing in. What once was an endless stream of $1,000 donations is now drips and drabs of checks with one or two fewer zeroes.
Such is the state of the man whose life infamously cratered three years ago, forcing him to resign in 2009 from the post he spent career chasing. A divorce, financial woes, a suicide attempt and news of an affair with a lobbyist seemingly ended a meteoric career.
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Richardson’s chance for a come back came when Gov. Nathan Deal named former state Sen. Bill Hamrick to be a Superior Court judge on the Coweta Judicial Circuit. Three other Republicans are also running: former state Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Winston, who resigned from the House to run for the Senate; Jim Naughton, a former textile executive and Michael Dugan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
They don’t have Richardson’s name recognition, but they carry far less baggage.
So far, none of the candidates have made Richardson’s past an issue, but that could change if he makes it into a runoff and suddenly becomes the focus of attention.
“It’s hard to get people excited about his problems in a presidential election,” said former GOP legislator Matt Towery, who runs a polling firm. “But a runoff is another matter. If he gets into a runoff, he’ll be the only one to focus on.”
Voters have largely been accepting, Richardson contends, although a few have told him they cannot forgive him. “I haven’t received nearly as many attacks as I thought I would,” he said.
Richardson’s announcement more than a month ago that he was running brought surprise but not necessarily shock.
“When he first announced there were some people shaking their heads but then you started hearing people saying that when he was speaker he did a good job,” said Bert Blood, chairman of the Republican Party in Douglas County.
The Nov. 6 primary most likely will go to a runoff on Dec. 4, observers say, because there are four candidates, all with built-in geographical constituencies. More than half the nearly 1,000-square-mile, 90,000-voter district is in Carroll County and the other portions are in Douglas and Paulding counties.
Hembree, a Republican state rep with 18 years in office lives near Douglasville and has roots in Carroll. Naughton and Dugan both live in Carroll County.
Dugan, who has served in war zones in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, said Hembree and Richardson have good name recognition but may be seen as incumbents in an atmosphere where political experience is often seen as a detriment, a negative Naughton cited as well.
“I don’t see an advantage to re-electing guys who have already been there,” Naughton said.
Towery said the presidential race will overshadow this campaign and the candidates will all be underdogs to some extent — Naughton and Dugan because they are newcomers, Hembree because he represented just a portion of the area and Richardson because of his past.
How do they overcome that? Money, Towery said.
“I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be an expensive race,” Towery said. “A lot of people owe a lot to Glenn Richardson. Do they come back to the table? I don’t know.”
State campaign law requires the candidates to disclose how much they have raised two weeks prior to the voting, so none of the candidates have yet had to reveal what they can spend.
Hembree has $49,000 in his election fund as a state rep but said he does not know it he can use the funds. In 2009, Richardson contributed $219,000 from his election fund to MMV Alliance PAC, a fund he started to elect Republicans. He said he cannot use the money for his election. Naughton, a successful businessman in his own right, is related by marriage to the Richards family, who owns Southwire, the cable manufacturing giant in Carrollton.
The two-month-long race, Hembree said, is a “100-yard dash at Olympic pace,” forcing candidates to eschew a slow, get-to-know-voters campaign and instead try to find them in groups whenever they can. Also, he hits the phones hard for contributions, making 100 calls a day.
“It’s a very grueling process,” Hembree said.
Richardson is running as somewhat of a populist. He wants the courts to take over the foreclosure process, a move that would make it harder for banks to take back homes. “I think I have a better perspective now for people hurting than I ever had,” said Richardson. “I’ve been there.”
The details of his departure from office were well documented in the media but they seem to be barely a blip in this election. In fact, the election itself is barely making a ripple.
“People are not discussing it; it’s not on the radar,” said Dan McBrayer, an insurance agent in Carrollton and former county commissioner. “It seems like the voters are not interested in this race.”
Harvey Persons, Douglasville’s mayor, agrees. “It’s weird, you don’t hear anything going on. It’s a tough one to handicap.”
Steve Anthony, a political aide to legendary Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy and now a Georgia State University professor, called Richardson a long shot.
“Even if he makes the runoff, I can’t conceive that he’ll win,” he said. “The obstacles are too great. There’s a buzz about the race, but it’s kind of like, ‘Jeez.’”
McBrayer said the general apathy might help Richardson. “People may see the names on the ballot and say, ‘Wait, I know that guy.’
“But the real deal will be in December at the runoff, which will be more bizarre,” McBrayer added. “People can get up and dust themselves off and reinvent themselves. We’ll see.”