State Rep. Matt Gurtler was sworn into office in January 2017 to represent House District 8 in northeast Georgia. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia Republicans try to oust one of their own from House

As an anti-government rebel within his own party, Republican state Rep. Matt Gurtler votes “no” more than any other legislator, opposing everything from state budgets to study committees.

His obstruction has gone too far for Republican Party leaders in the Georgia House of Representatives, who are now trying to boot him from office.

Gurtler, a 29-year-old general contractor from Tiger, faces a Republican primary election challenge this month from an opponent with financial backing from House Speaker David Ralston and several other ranking representatives.

Mickey Cummings, the manager of the Union County Farmers Market, is running against state Rep. Matt Gurtler in the May 22 Republican primary election to represent House District 8 in northeast Georgia. He’s gotten a lot of financial support from members of the state House’s Republican leadership. Photo from votemickeycummings.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

House leaders have given campaign contributions to Mickey Cummings, the manager of the Union County Farmers Market, in his campaign to unseat Gurtler in the May 22 primary for a House district that covers the northeast corner of Georgia. No Democrat is in the race, meaning the primary will decide the election.

“They want someone they can control and who will be a yes man and do their bidding,” Gurtler said. “A legislator who exercises their independent legislative judgment is not something they like too much, and sticking to your values, convictions and Republican principles is something that is in short supply at the Capitol.”

The donations from House leaders, totaling $13,700 so far, send a message that they want Gurtler out.

Majority Whip Christian Coomer of Cartersville, speaking for House leadership, said Gurtler is failing both his voters and the policy priorities of Republicans.

“The plain truth is, when you have bad ideas, you can’t get a lot of traction in a system that requires collaboration and cooperation to get things done,” Coomer said. “The incumbent simply doesn’t represent the principles of the district and the majority caucus.”

Coomer said Gurtler is hindering Republican efforts on issues such as police pay raises, public education funding and firefighter insurance.

The poll by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs was conducted April 19 to April 26. Each of the 507 respondents indicated they had voted in the 2014 or 2016 Republican primary and that they would likely vote in the May contest. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.

Gurtler says he’s taking a stand to reduce the size and intrusiveness of government.

Contributions to Gurtler’s opponent came from Ralston, R-Blue Ridge; House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla; House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun; House Majority Caucus Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin; and state Rep. Chad Nimmer, a Republican from Blackshear and a House budget subcommittee chairman. They declined to comment or didn’t respond to emails.

Cummings, 59, said he would provide better representation for the district than Gurtler by working with fellow Republicans to support law enforcement, education and rural internet access.

“I don’t know why exactly he votes no, but I do feel it causes problems for our district up here when he continuously votes no on everything,” said Cummings, a retired agent from the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, which provides agriculture research to farmers. “You don’t vote yes on everything that happens, but there are some good things that happen in our state Legislature.”

Gurtler voted no 40 percent of the time in 2017 and 2018, making him the strongest voice of dissent in either the state House or Senate, according to an analysis of voting records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In all, he opposed 215 measures and supported 323.

Overall, Republicans voted no 6 percent of the time, compared with 12 percent among Democrats.

Gurtler’s supporters said his voice for limited government is needed at the Capitol.

“There’s a tendency of any government elected official to be lured to the dark side to try to buy votes, win votes and gain influence,” said John Van Vliet, a professor of business and public policy at Young Harris College who contributed $150 to Gurtler’s campaign. “That happens to anyone in power, and Matt is resisting that very well. He is showing other Republicans the proper path.”

Gurtler said he’s being targeted for his ultraconservative views, which ruffle the feathers of Republicans in power. He was first elected in 2016.

Last year, Gurtler said Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, threatened to cut funding to his district in retaliation for him being the only legislator in the House to vote against the governor’s budget proposal. Riley said at the time that he never threatened Gurtler but instead asked why he would vote against funding for his district and the rest of Georgia.

“This go-along, get-along ‘good ol’ boy’ system is precisely why people are fed up with big government and politicians in general, and is exactly why the country elected President Donald Trump to end these types of dealings,” Gurtler said. “The swamp is in Atlanta, too.”

Coomer, the Republican House majority whip, said Gurtler is blaming leadership after finding himself in the minority of his own party.

“All I can tell you is Donald Trump does not support Representative Gurtler,” Coomer said. “What you hear in that sentiment is someone who is clearly not successful in promoting their agenda. Rather than accepting that their agenda is flawed, they blame the system.”

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