Despite long odds, Dalton mayor considers challenging Deal

Dalton’s City Hall is an unlikely springboard to the state’s top office, but Mayor David Pennington seems eager to try his luck.

The conservative mayor has been stumping across Georgia threatening to bring a tea party-tinged challenge against Gov. Nathan Deal. He says he’ll abstain only if a challenger he views as better than him emerges, but that seems unlikely. Pennington is nothing if not confident in himself.

His quest for office — the word quixotic does come to mind — has ruffled feathers within his own party as he bashes the governor over ethics reform, health care spending, tax cuts and any other issue he thinks will gain traction on the right. His underlying message is that Democrats will return to power unless “true conservative” principles are embraced.

“Georgia will be devastated in the next recession. And by that point, the true liberals are going to say conservative principles have failed us,” he told a small crowd at a recent Forsyth County event. “But we haven’t had any conservative principles. We’ve had Republicans masquerading as conservatives. And if we don’t watch out, we’ll lose out.”

His odds are steep; some would say insurmountable. He faces a powerful incumbent who has managed to keep his fractious party in line and, aside from Pennington, pacified rumblings from his right flank. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ retirement only helped by drawing other potential Deal rivals into the race for that open seat.

“Is there anybody in Dalton who thinks he has anything better than a snowball’s chance in hell?” asked Ken Ellinger, a Dalton State College political science professor. “It’s not a knock on him. Does any Republican in Georgia have a snowball’s chance against an incumbent governor? It doesn’t work that way.”

Yet Pennington sees a glimmer of an opening. Democrats have so far struggled to coalesce behind a likely contender, leaving a void for a challenger he hopes to fill. Recent polls show squishy approval ratings for Deal. And Pennington may be hoping he’s in position in case a scandal or stumble trips up Deal.

“I know he’ll outspend me. But my supporters will be business people and my own home community,” he recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We know how to raise money. And I’ve been successful in business, so I have money of my own that I can help seed.”

Pennington, 60, is a fast-talking insurance executive who rarely shies from the spotlight and often holds court from his usual table at a downtown Dalton diner. He emerged from a crowded primary in 2007 to win the mayor’s race on the promise of cutting taxes and reining in spending, and he backed efforts to improve literacy rates among elementary school students.

He took office as Dalton’s carpet-based economy tanked during the collapse of the housing industry, and the local market has yet to recover. At one point in mid-2012, the region lost more jobs than any other metropolitan area in the nation when compared with the previous year. The area’s unemployment rate still hovers above 10 percent despite efforts to attract new industry.

“I don’t think that Mayor Pennington has been instrumental in doing the right things to bring jobs back to Dalton,” said Sherie Luffman, a local Democrat. “They’re not doing enough to attract new industry in Dalton.”

Pennington has also sought to stake out a statewide reputation while in office. He traveled the state last year crusading against the 1 percent transportation sales tax, and he has told friends for months that he was considering a race for the state’s top spot.

Some question whether his run is aimed at needling the Republicans in power. After all, he supported Democrat Carol Porter’s failed run for lieutenant governor in 2010, saying it was “time for sweeping leadership change in the state.”

“It does seem like such a pointless exercise,” said Ellinger, the Dalton professor. “It’s hard to imagine any circumstance aside from an incredible scandal that would even let him make it close.”

Even as the Republican field solidifies, Democrats are still trying to figure out who might run. Party leaders are trying to rally behind a candidate for the open Senate seat before recruiting a candidate who can run for governor.

“If the person running for governor is a drag, it’s going to hurt the U.S. Senate race, too,” said Stephen Anthony, a Georgia State University lecturer and one-time head of the state Democratic Party.

Deal, meanwhile, has stepped up his schedule as he prepares his re-election bid, staging elaborate bill signings and luncheons and dinners across the state. Some of Deal’s aides privately hope Pennington does run so they have a chance to raise more campaign cash. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson questioned whether Pennington is living in a “fantasyland.”

“To say that’s not conservative conjures images of 2012 when Republicans in other states lost elections we should have won because the candidates said crazy things,” Robinson said. “Georgia Republicans have a long history of nominating candidates who can win, and they aren’t going to make the mistakes we’ve seen in other states.”

At a recent event in front of Forsyth County’s courthouse, Pennington gushed a string of discouraging statistics about high foreclosure rates and stubborn unemployment figures before a crowd of about two dozen tea party supporters who rewarded him with polite applause.

Afterward, several of them surrounded him and urged him to run. Whether they think he has a real shot is another story.

“Our governor may talk like he’s a conservative, but he’s not,” said Trilby Leech, a local tea party activist. “Pennington is a true conservative, and I believe his actions speak louder than words.”

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