Carter’s missed votes become issue in Georgia governor’s race

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It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

Democrat Jason Carter missed dozens of votes in the state Senate as he prepared to run for higher office, including key decisions on the fate of new cities in DeKalb County and a constitutional amendment to cap Georgia’s income tax.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis showed Carter missed more than 130 votes on the final outcome of bills or resolutions during two terms in the state Senate, including nearly 60 votes in the past two legislative sessions as he geared up to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal for the state’s top job.

Carter’s campaign said he made more than 90 percent of the votes and the missed ones took place when he was meeting with constituents or negotiating with lawmakers. It pointed to dozens of votes that Deal missed while a member of Congress ahead of his 2010 campaign for governor.

“Governors in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said, adding: “We’ll put Senator Carter’s record against Governor Deal’s any day of the week.”

Republicans see Carter’s missed votes as a chance to paint him as an inexperienced opportunist too busy preparing for his next job to focus on his current one.

“It’s not only about the missing of the votes, but the votes that he missed and the sequence in which he missed them,” Deal said after a recent campaign stop. “He’ll vote on one issue, and then when a controversial issue comes along, he won’t vote. It’s a pattern of just not showing up when hard judgment calls have to be made.”

An ‘age-old’ problem

Georgia lawmakers routinely register more than 1,500 votes in their two-year terms, and packed calendars mean that skipping a few hours — or even a few minutes — during the busiest times in the 40-day session can mean missing several votes.

Carter is far from alone. Georgia’s statehouse contingent is made up of citizen-legislators with full-time jobs in the private sector, and many lawmakers skip dozens of votes a year. Most also log numerous “excused” absences to reflect scheduling conflicts, illnesses or other events; Carter also has about 60 of those since 2011.

George Hooks, who served in the chamber for 32 years and was the “dean” of the Senate when he retired in 2013, said so many lawmakers missed votes after getting caught in the bustle of the statehouse hallways that clerks started printing form letters to change votes rather than require a formal request.

“It’s an age-old argument. I’ve seen it made over and over and over again against people who served in legislative office,” said Hooks, a Democrat. “It’s a stock attack. I’ve seen the same argument used from Democrats and Republicans. But it rings kind of hollow to those of us who served in the Legislature.”

Others suggested the missed votes were indicative of a squeamish candidate. Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, said in a statement that the governor “has faced tough issues head on while Jason Carter has repeatedly taken a walk on politically sensitive votes.”

Bill Crane, a political analyst who has worked for candidates in both parties, said Carter's missed votes don't seem to be a part of a campaign strategy. Otherwise, he said, Carter would have likely ducked his "yes" vote on Georgia's controversial gun rights expansion, a position that drew criticism from many left-leaning groups.

“As a two-term state senator, he’s learned the ropes faster than others,” Crane said. “He knows that all votes aren’t created equal and it’s OK to miss one here and there.”

Deal faced similar criticism when he was gearing up for his 2010 gubernatorial bid. He missed more than 180 congressional votes in 2009 and about two-thirds of the votes in the opening months of 2010 before he stepped down to focus on his campaign. The votes included a proposal to impose sanctions on Iran and a program to retrain veterans, though others were procedural votes and not final passage decisions.

Jen Talaber, a Deal campaign spokeswoman, said Carter’s missed votes were more telling because they were part of a calculated strategy to “avoid taking a stand on tough issues” because some of the missed votes came shortly after he cast other votes.

From deer to DeKalb

Many of the votes Carter missed were inconsequential pieces of legislation, but a handful were of greater import.

He was the sole member of the Senate in 2011 to miss a vote without an excused absence on a proposal to require people to get approval from a separate evaluator before they adopt a child. He also didn't vote on a House proposal that would give some hunters more leeway to use bait to attract deer. Each passed both chambers and was signed into law by Deal.

The scrutiny over his votes picked up after Carter announced in November that he would run for governor in November but would not resign his seat. That gave him a pulpit during this year’s session to press his own vision of state government, but it also meant that Deal’s supporters would be watching his every vote.

Among those he missed was one to permit a ballot question on a constitutional amendment that would cap Georgia's income tax rate at 6 percent. He was the sole member of the Senate to miss that vote, which ultimately passed despite a Democratic rift, though he voted in favor of an earlier version.

A Lakeside limbo?

The most contentious no-show vote, though, involved the divisive debate over a proposal to create a new city in north DeKalb County. The Atlanta Democrat delivered a fiery speech on the floor of the Senate saying a bill that would create the city of Lakeside in his district was a sign that the chamber was "broken."

“It is partisan politics at its worst,” he said during that floor speech. “And the reason it makes me sad is because so much of the time we work together.”

When it came time to vote for the bill, though, Carter was among four senators who missed it, although he voted minutes earlier to table the proposal.

His campaign said he was "clearly opposed" to the bill but that he had to rush to make a long-scheduled meeting. Carter wrote a letter to the Senate clerk to record a "no" vote, although that doesn't reflect in the official record. The Senate ultimately approved the bill, but the House never took it up.

Some Lakeside boosters are still sore over it. Mary Kay Woodworth, the chairwoman of the Lakeside City Alliance, said she found it “extremely troubling” that he missed the vote. And former Democratic state Rep. Kevin Levitas, who once represented the area, said Carter “turned his back” on constituents.

“People don’t send you down there to reinvent the wheel or to gratify their ego. They send you down there to vote,” said Levitas, who said in four years in the statehouse he only missed a handful of votes, if any. “And as a constituent of Senator Carter’s, I’m not only appalled, I’m disgusted to hear that he’s missed that many votes.”

Hooks, the veteran senator who has cast tens of thousands of “yays” and “nays” over the decades, had a different take.

“I was one of the most dedicated senators in there,” he said, “and if you compared my last two years with anybody’s, I’m sure you’ll find I’m missing a lot, too.”