Who's the one to beat in crowded 7th District race?

WINDER -- There are so many Republicans running for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District seat that they barely fit on the stage at a GOP candidates’ forum here last week.

The pack of contenders is pretty diverse. Some have political experience. Others are newcomers inspired to run by their anger with Washington.

U.S. Rep. John Linder’s chief of staff is running for the seat. So is a state legislator. A syndicated talk show host is also among the group along with a prosecutor, a flight attendant, a state government retiree, a CPA and a human resources executive. There would have been a ninth GOP candidate had state Sen. Don Balfour not pulled out of the race in March.

“I’m surprised there are not a few more candidates in the race. An open congressional seat is not something that happens every day,” said Brandon Doty, chairman of the 7th Congressional District for the Georgia Republican Party. Still, Doty said: “We have got some really good choices.”

The eight Republicans are vying to replace Linder, who is retiring after about 18 years in office. His solidly conservative 7th District includes most of Gwinnett County, parts of Forsyth and Newton counties and all of Barrow and Walton counties.

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Doty is predicting a runoff after the primary since there are so many people competing for the job. Several of the candidates privately say state Rep. Clay Cox is the man to beat in the July 20 GOP primary because of his political experience, large war chest and name recognition. On the Democratic side, there is just one candidate: Doug Heckman, who unsuccessfully ran against Linder in 2008.

Cox had $254,446 on hand at the end of March, according to federal records. He also listed $402,166 in debt as of March 31. But that includes $140,000 in loans he made to his campaign this year as well as $262,000 he lent himself for his unsuccessful campaign for the 13th Congressional District seat in 2002.

Cox, who has been endorsed by the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, is pitching himself as the “consistently conservative” candidate. He said he will work to slash the size of government and institute “massive, across-the-board spending cuts.” He said he opposes congressional pet-project spending, known as earmarks. He launched a campaign TV ad recently that talks about sending House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “back to San Francisco where she belongs.”

Cox has trumpeted experience in the Statehouse, where he has served as a representative since 2005. A former state probation officer, he has also highlighted his small-business experience starting a probation services company with his wife, Lisa. They sold the business -- Professional Probation Services -- in 1997. But he remains its CEO.

Cox attracted attention last year when he filed legislation to limit oversight of the private probation business. After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about the bill, Cox pulled it and said he was reworking it. One of Cox’s opponents in the race, Chuck Efstration, attacked the legislator on that issue at the Barrow County GOP candidates’ forum last week.

“That was a bill to benefit his own industry,” said Efstration, an assistant district attorney for Gwinnett County. Cox rose from his seat and accused Efstration of breaking the rules of the forum, throwing “live grenades” at him at debates and spreading falsehoods. Undaunted, Efstration continued: “Clay, the legislation is online ... . And sir, you owe an apology to the people of the 7th District for that bill.”

Asked about the bill later, Cox’s campaign sent the AJC a statement saying he introduced the bill not to benefit himself but to help the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council, which he said was facing budget cuts. He pointed to one of the provisions of the bill, which would allow the council to charge private probation companies an annual registration fee of up to $500. His campaign sent the AJC another version of the bill that would have increased this annual fee based on how many contracts each company held.

“It is important to note that this good legislation unfortunately did not pass,” Cox said in his statement. “Further, it’s ridiculous to claim that legislation is a conflict of interest when it would have cost my business thousands of dollars in new fees every year.”

Efstration, meanwhile, is vowing to never vote to raise taxes, support earmark spending or use his office for personal gain. He has highlighted his work as a former chairman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party, where he said he “fought for conservative government and worked hard to see that our elected leaders stuck to the conservative principles that they ran on.”

Like Efstration and Cox, Rob Woodall is campaigning on his experience. He served as Linder’s chief of staff from 1999 to this year, when he resigned to focus on his campaign. Linder has endorsed his candidacy, saying Woodall is “alone among the field of candidates in having real world experience moving federal legislation and turning the wheels of government for the benefit of those he serves.”

Linder also credited Woodall with helping improve and promote a plan to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. Woodall said he would fight for local control of education and seek to repeal the federal stimulus spending program and reclaim any unspent money from it.

“If you choose me to represent you, you are not going to lose a single day to training,” Woodall said in a recent phone interview. “I will be at work for you on Day One."

Jody Hice, a nationally syndicated talk show host, is also running. He drew headlines in 2008 when he sought to pick a fight with the Internal Revenue Service. Speaking from his pulpit at Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Barrow County, he urged his congregation to vote for John McCain for president over Barack Obama. He did that despite IRS regulations that say clergy can risk the tax-exempt status of their churches by making such public endorsements. He said the IRS backed down, though the IRS rules are still in effect. Hice resigned as pastor about three months ago to spend more time on his radio program and on speaking engagements, his campaign said.

Hice also attracted attention when his organization, Ten Commandments Georgia, funded Barrow County’s legal defense against an ACLU lawsuit. The ACLU sued over a Ten Commandments display in the county courthouse. A federal judge ordered the county to remove the display in 2005, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution.

“I have a proven record of fighting tough fights and really doing some serious lifting as it relates to the culture war here in America,” Hice said.

Four other Republicans are running for the 7th District seat. Jef Fincher, a real estate broker and longtime Delta flight attendant, has been active in the tea party movement. Ronnie Grist, a Georgia state government retiree, said he represents working-class people. Tom Kirby is a human resources safety manager for a private business and states’ rights supporter. Tom Parrott said his work as a CPA and bankruptcy turnaround consultant has given him valuable business experience he could use in Washington.

Whoever emerges from the July 20 GOP primary -- and then wins an Aug. 10 runoff if one is required -- will face Heckman in the general election. Heckman picked up 38 percent of the vote in his loss to Linder in the 2008 election for his seat.

Heckman has substantial military experience that could resonate with conservative voters. An Army colonel, Heckman has served in the military since the 1980s, done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and received three Bronze Stars. He has cast himself as someone who could bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans in an increasingly partisan Congress.

“I am the best candidate to bring people together,” said Heckman, a marketing executive for a financial services company. “I was able to do it between the Shiites and the Sunnis [in Iraq], so why not do it between the Republicans and the Democrats?”

Democrat

Doug Heckman

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor of Science degree, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, 1981; Master of Business Administration, Duke University, 1989

Profession: Marketing executive for a financial services company

Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for the 7th Congressional District seat, 2008.

Military experience: An Army colonel who has served with the U.S. Army, Army Reserve and Special Forces since the 1980s. Has done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and has received three Bronze Stars.

Civic experience: Past president of the Peachtree Station Homeowners Association; advisory board member for Operation One Voice; volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America.

Family status: Married to Pat Heckman, three children

Republicans

Clay Cox

Age: 41

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in criminology, Western Carolina University, 1991

Profession: CEO of Professional Probation Services

Political experience: Georgia state representative, 2005-present; Republican nominee for the 13th Congressional District, 2002

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Member, Lilburn Christian Church; member, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, 1993-present; member, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce Chairman's Club, 2010; board member, Bethany Christian Services, 2007-2008

Family status: Married to Alisa Cox, two children

Chuck Efstration

Age: 27

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, University of Georgia, 2004; law degree, Mercer University School of Law, 2008

Profession: Gwinnett County assistant district attorney

Political experience: Former chairman, Gwinnett County Republican Party

Military experience: None

Civic experience: Eagle Scout; member, Gwinnett County Bar Association; member, Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation

Family status: Single

Jef Fincher

Age:56

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, University of Texas, 1976

Profession: Real estate broker and developer and 34-year Delta flight attendant

Political experience: N/A

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Past president, Duluth Rotary Club; member, Board of Realtors; member, Board of Gwinnett Council for the Arts; member, Board of Aurora Theatre; member, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, 2008-2010; member, Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce Arts Task Force, 2009; chairman, Friends of the Gwinnett Medical Center Foundation, 2000-2007; past chairman, Duluth Fall Festival

Family status: Married to Kathryn Andrews Fincher, two adult children

Ronnie Grist

Age:49

Education: Associate degree in business administration, Clayton Junior College, 1984

Profession: Georgia state government retiree

Political experience: Volunteered in Republican House and Senate campaigns

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Longtime volunteer in support of veterans and their families; fund-raiser for various charitable organizations; alternate national executive committee member and past national chaplain, Sons of the American Legion; director, Greater Atlanta Association U.S. Bowling Congress

Family status: Single

Jody Hice

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible, Asbury College, 1982; Master of Divinity, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986; Doctor of Ministry, Luther Rice Seminary and University, 1988

Profession: Former senior pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Barrow County and a speaker and nationally syndicated talk show host

Political experience: Founded Ten Commandments Georgia

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Former first vice president, Georgia Baptist Convention, 2004-2005

Family status: Married to DeeDee Hice, two daughters

Tom Kirby

Age:49

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture economics, University of Kentucky

Profession: Human resources safety manager for CertainTeed Corp.

Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for Walton County Board of Commissioners, 2008.

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Chairman of the board, Walton Career Academy; member, Walton County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors; president, Leadership Walton Alumni Association

Family status: Married to Rosemary Kirby, three daughters

Tom Parrott

Age: 59

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in accounting, Suffolk University, 1976; Master of Accountancy, Arizona State University, 1980; Master of Arts degree in biblical counseling, Luther Rice Seminary and University, 2010

Profession: CPA, bankruptcy turnaround consultant, and a regional sales executive for an information technology company

Political experience: Republican state delegate for Vermont, 1988

Military experience: United States Air Force, 1970-1973

Civic experience: N/A

Family status: Married to Ellen Parrott, three sons

Rob Woodall

Age: 40

Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, Furman University, 1992; Juris Doctor, University of Georgia, 1997

Profession: Chief of staff to Rep. John Linder, 1999-2010

Political experience: Subcommittee staff director for the House Rules Committee; Linder's lead staff member on Speaker Newt Gingrich's Health Care Task Force, Medicare Task Force and Tobacco Settlement Task Force and Elected Leadership Committee

Military experience: N/A

Civic experience: Member of Barrow, Walton and Gwinnett Chambers of Commerce; missionary/youth counselor, Honduras Outreach Missions

Family status: Single

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