Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter and Sheriff Butch Conway gave their support to an effort to bring MARTA into the county through a March 19 referendum. Each made a case that MARTA could make Gwinnett safer. (CASEY SYKES / CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM)

Capitol Recap: Two key Republicans back MARTA expansion to Gwinnett

A couple of key Republicans have gotten on board, supporting the March 19 referendum to bring MARTA and bus rapid transit to Gwinnett County.

The backing of Sheriff Butch Conway and District Attorney Danny Porter could be a big help in persuading voters to pass the referendum, which at least one analyst says could be running into trouble.

As Gwinnett’s top law enforcement officials, they could ease the fears of some voters that MARTA would transport crime into the county.

Porter and Conway, in supporting a 1-cent sales tax to expand MARTA into the county, both made a case that transit could make Gwinnett safer.

The district attorney pointed out that transit hubs attract investment and crowds, two factors that reduce crime while increasing the law enforcement presence.

The sheriff said county motorists will be safer, too, because a “much-needed transit expansion will take thousands of vehicles off our roads every day, which will lead to fewer wrecks, fewer traffic jams and fewer fatalities.”

“Studies clearly show that an increase in transit ridership increases road safety,” Conway said. “We know we can make a huge difference in Gwinnett because even the more limited bus service that is provided today makes a big difference.”

He said Gwinnett buses account for 29 percent of the passengers in the county’s I-85 HOT lanes, but only 2 percent of the vehicles.

Support from Porter and Conway could shift the referendum’s prospects into a higher gear.

For weeks, only one prominent Republican had publicly backed the transit expansion, Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash.

Then former Gov. Nathan Deal got behind the referendum, which might be in need of assistance.

Early voting began Feb. 25, and an analysis of the first week of voting, performed by Ryan Anderson of GeorgiaVotes.com, showed that more than 60 percent of the 4,700 or so ballots cast were submitted by white voters. More than 80 percent were cast by voters 50 or older. That indicates the referendum could be in trouble because polling shows those are the two demographic groups most likely to vote against public transportation.

Speaking against speaker:State Rep. David Clark won’t be running for the open seat in the 7th Congressional District. He’s too busy fighting with state House Speaker David Ralston.

The Republican from Buford has led the push for Ralston to step down as head of the House following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigation into the speaker’s use of legislative leave privileges to delay criminal cases he was handling in his private legal practice.

There had been speculation that Clark was among a group of Republicans who would make a run to replace U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall after he announced he would not seek re-election in 2020.

Clark said during a press conference that he intends to stay in the Georgia Capitol to “clean up this mess.”

He urged GOP colleagues to “stiffen their spines” in opposing Ralston, a fellow Republican.

Clark faults Ralston not only for the findings in the AJC/Channel 2 investigation, but also for the party’s loss of several legislative seats in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. If Ralston continues to lead House Republicans, Clark said, the party could lose its hold on the chamber in 2020.

Democrats will link Ralston to every GOP candidate, Clark said, portraying him as a “toxic bogeyman.”

And then, by Republican standards, Clark got nasty, saying Democrats will use the speaker “the same way Georgia Republicans tie Democrats to Nancy Pelosi.”

A Georgia piece of probe: Two lawyers of note with ties to Atlanta were among the 81 people, federal agencies and private companies that received letters from the U.S. House Judiciary Committee seeking answers about President Donald Trump, his 2016 campaign and his business dealings.

One was FBI Director Chris Wray, who once worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, as well as with the Atlanta firm King and Spalding. House Democrats are asking the bureau to turn over communications related to the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn; former FBI Director James Comey; and a potential pardon for former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.

The other was Stefan Passantino, the onetime head of the political law division for Dentons and at times a lawyer for both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Passantino, who was the president’s ethics lawyer, is being asked to supply documents related to any domestic or foreign governments offering payouts to Trump or his business interests.

Giving up nothing: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is boycotting a product, but the impact could be so small it’s difficult to measure.

Speaking in Orlando, Fla., at the Commodity Classic — a Lollapalooza for traders in soybeans, corn and similar goods — the former Georgia governor took aim at Anheuser-Busch over its Super Bowl commercial touting the absence of corn syrup in Bud Light.

“I don’t know if you all watched the Super Bowl at all, but there was a commercial on there and talking about some products some of you corn growers may have produced. And they don’t use it anymore,” Perdue said. “Well, guess what? I don’t use theirs anymore, either.”

That’s probably not going to be enough to create a panic at InBev, the Belgian owner of Anheuser-Bush.

It’s been accepted as fact for years that Perdue didn’t “use theirs” at all. As governor, he described himself as a teetotaler and didn’t allow alcohol to be served in the Governor’s Mansion. As far as anybody knew, corn syrup had nothing to do with it.

A conventional tactic: A contender to take over the Georgia Republican Party wants to make Atlanta the center of the GOP universe — at least for a week in 2024.

Scott Johnson, a former chairman of the Cobb County GOP, wants the city to play host to the Republican National Convention that year.

In a Facebook post, Johnson notes that Republicans have located a number of their conventions in the South, although the 2016 gathering of elephants was in Cleveland.

“In recent years, the RNC has selected Houston and Tampa, and in 2020 our friends in Charlotte will host the GOP national convention,” Johnson wrote. “Together, we will assemble a strong bid team, work with our partners in metro Atlanta and across Georgia and prepare an amazing bid.”

Atlanta’s only experience in the political convention game goes back to 1988, when Democrats came to town and nominated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis to run against the Republican nominee, George H.W. Bush.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Democrat Antwon Stephens has launched a campaign against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. ProjectQ reports that if Stephens won, he would make history as Georgia’s first open LGBTQ member of Congress. He would also be one of the youngest: 25 when his term would begin in 2021. The 9th District is among the strongest of Republican strongholds east of the Mississippi River. In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump won the district, which covers much of northeast Georgia, by nearly 60 percentage points. But Stephens can’t be written off completely. He has fundraising skills, which he showed last year during an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Athens, when, according to ProjectQ, he took in more than $100,000.

— Republican U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville has also drawn a Democratic opponent, Rachel Kinsey, for his 11th Congressional District seat. Kinsey, a small-business owner from Woodstock, ran unsuccessfully last year against state Sen. Bruce Thomas, R-White.

— Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux pulled in the endorsement of former Gov. Roy Barnes for her next bid to win the 7th Congressional District. By having Barnes in her column, she might be able to fend off several high-profile state legislators hoping to replace Woodall. Woodall barely survived his bout with Bourdeaux in November, winning the district rooted in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties by 433 votes after counts and recounts. Two other Democrats in the contest are attorney Marqus Cole and community organizer Nabilah Islam.

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