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Relative newcomers vie to be Georgia’s next lieutenant governor

Both candidates running to be the next lieutenant governor are relatively new to Georgia politics.

Democratic nominee Sarah Riggs Amico, a first-time candidate, moved to Marietta nearly eight years ago. While she’s never served in public office, the executive chairwoman of a large truck-hauling company says her business acumen qualifies her to lead the state Senate.

Her opponent, Republican Geoff Duncan, has a little more political experience. Elected to the Georgia House in 2012, the Cumming small business owner resigned in 2017 to focus on his run for lieutenant governor.

Each has benefited from the excitement around the state’s historic governor’s race, which has drawn high-profile campaign visits and endorsements — President Donald Trump endorsed Republican Brian Kemp during the primary election, and former President Barack Obama endorsed both Amico and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Both Amico and Duncan campaigned last week with unsuccessful 2016 presidential candidates — Amico with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Duncan with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — and have crisscrossed the state, trying to get in front of as many potential voters as possible.

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“It’s the balance between just trying to get to as many stops as you can and as many voters as you can and raising the right amount of money to be on TV,” Duncan said of the last few months of campaigning.

Amico launched a bus tour two weeks ago, often appearing with local Democratic candidates and sometimes with Abrams for town halls and early-voting rallies.

“It’s been so interesting and so exciting,” Amico said. “We are all literally working together as a slate.”

While supporters have poured cash into the campaigns, Duncan is outpacing his opponent in the money race. The Republican reported raising almost $1.9 million as of the Sept. 30 filing deadline. He loaned his race an additional $350,000.

Amico reported raising more than $757,000 in donations for her campaign by the most recent deadline. She has loaned her race an additional $676,000.

According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll earlier this month, Duncan is also leading among expected voters.

The poll of likely November voters found that 45.4 percent of those who responded planned to cast their ballots for Duncan, with 39.3 percent planning to vote for Amico. The remaining 15.3 percent were undecided.

Sarah Riggs Amico

A Missouri native, Amico and her husband followed her family to the Marietta area in 2011. With her grandparents and her two daughters all living in metro Atlanta, four generations of her family now live in Georgia.

A graduate of Harvard Business School, Amico took over for her father in 2014 as executive chairwoman of the trucking company Jack Cooper. She began serving on the company’s board in 2011 while working for a talent agency in California.

The company has ballooned in recent years from 120 to 3,500 employees, acquiring smaller trucking companies as it grows.

Duncan’s campaign has questioned Amico’s abilities as an executive. For example, in 2017 the company negotiated with debt holders to avoid a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.

Amico said the company restructured its debt and increased its cash on hand, something she said is common for large companies.

Duncan’s campaign also questioned the raise the Jack Cooper board gave Amico in 2016 — taking her from an annual salary of $200,000 to $425,000.

Amico said to help turn the company around, she initially accepted a salary that was far below market rate. After a couple of years, the board hired a company to review her salary and voted to give her the raise, she said.

“I deserved a raise,” she said. “I led the effort to pay for everyone’s health care. I led the effort to give everyone paid parental leave.”

When campaigning, Amico often tells prospective voters she is a “recovering Republican.” According to federal campaign records, Amico donated $973 to Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.

Since last year, she’s donated more than $23,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations.

While Amico said she never felt as though she fully aligned with either Republicans or Democrats, watching Georgia’s Republican delegation in Congress work to repeal the Affordable Care Act made her feel like it was time to pick a side.

“When Republicans started trying to take away folks’ health care and trying to restrict opportunity instead of expand it — when their focus was on tearing other people down instead of building our people up, I didn’t want any part of it,” she said.

Expanding health care in Georgia has been a major part of Amico’s campaign. She believes the best way to get more Georgians insured is by expanding Medicaid, the public health program that provides care to the poor and disabled. That has been Abrams’ top priority on the campaign trail, too.

Amico points to a study by the Urban Institute that found Medicaid expansion would insure 473,000 Georgians and create 56,000 jobs.

Amico supporter Lisa Earle McLeod said when she first attended a campaign event last year, she was impressed with the Democrat’s familiarity with the health care system.

“Sarah spoke about it knowledgeably,” said McLeod, a small-business owner who lives in Greensboro. “In 2018 a sick child should be able to go to the doctor.”

Amico said she believes Georgia’s Republicans have had the opportunity to solve the state’s problems. Instead, she said, there are 64 counties that don’t have a pediatrician, 79 counties that don’t have an obstetrician/gynecologist and Georgia has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country.

“They had 14 years to show us what they can do,” she said of Republicans having full control of state government. “If their solutions were going to work, they would have.”

Geoff Duncan

When Duncan began his campaign 18 months ago, very few people knew who he was, he said. Now he feels like his campaign is picking up steam.

“We’re trying to continue to get the message out and get to as many communities as possible and talk about the trajectory we’re on in Georgia, both to the folks that are with us as Republicans and the 10 percent in the middle that are still trying to decide,” he said.

He’s run his campaign as an underdog, a tactic that helped him eke out a victory over 16-year state Senate veteran David Shafer.

Duncan, an Alpharetta native who played baseball at Georgia Tech and in the minor leagues, owns a small marketing business and consults with health and construction companies. He lives in Cumming with his wife, who was his high school sweetheart, and three sons.

He said his sons have benefited from Forsyth County’s strong public school system, but he knows that children in other parts of the state are not as fortunate.

“We need to look for ways to improve education here in Georgia,” he said. “The greatest gift the state of Georgia can give a child is a quality k-12 education.”

But, Duncan said, he believes government should be less involved and give parents the ability to make the best choice for their child. The candidate said he doesn’t believe there is any one specific policy change that will improve education.

“We need to look for opportunities to modernize how we fund education in this state,” he said. “That should be a bipartisan issue. … We should have an education system that allows us to educate children in a global economy.”

Cumming resident Brandon Hensley, who played baseball with Duncan at Georgia Tech, said he thinks Duncan’s ability to approach problems uniquely would make him a strong lieutenant governor.

“He has an incredible ability to be creative and be sort of unbiased in searching for solutions,” Hensley said. “He’s not someone who’s been the career politician. So it’s refreshing to me for him to take his private-sector experience and apply it to get the most out of government.”

Duncan has also benefited from some negative campaigning.

During the primary, an out-of-state “independent group,” the Washington-based Hometown Freedom Action Network, reported spending about $3 million against Shafer.

Amico decried the Duncan campaign’s willingness to “go negative” against her and her business, citing their focus on a civil lawsuit filed against the company in Indiana where 10 current and former employees have accused a supervisor of discrimination.

“If somebody can’t stay focused on the issues that matter to our families for a few months of a campaign, there’s no chance they can do that in office,” Amico said.

But Duncan said voters should look at the campaign as a long job interview.

“If matters of public record out there give an opportunity for people to dive into who we are and make decisions, then so be it,” he said. “Whoever ends up showing up to vote on Election Day is watching to see who is most qualified to lead this state forward.”

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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