Senate campaign battle in N. Fulton, Cherokee among roughest

Trina Kemp has lived in Alpharetta’s tony Windward Community for 17 years, watching as the rolling, wooded hills of North Fulton County have increasingly given way to more homes, shopping areas and people — the place is so popular she doesn’t take a breath when asked what issue tops her list as a voter.

“Traffic,” says Kemp, 55, before the question even has time to settle. “The traffic is getting worse every day. It’s affecting my whole life, just going to get groceries now takes a half-hour.”

It’s a tailor-made entry for the man standing on her doorstep, a first-time candidate for office who has forced a local incumbent, state Sen. Brandon Beach, into one of this year’s toughest re-election battles for a seat in the Georgia Legislature.

Beach, an Alpharetta Republican, was a big backer of last year’s blockbuster transportation bill and championed horse-racing legislation and MARTA expansion this year. But he faces a GOP primary challenge on May 24 from an investment manager, Aaron Barlow, who both in person and in a flurry of self-funded political mailers attacks Beach over those votes and what he says is a “tax first and ask questions later” approach.

“I’m a conservative Republican trying to get rid of a liberal Republican,” the 41-year-old Barlow tells Kemp. “He’s the one who did the billion-dollar gas tax when we had a state surplus that could pay for the same projects.”

Kemp bites, letting Barlow stake a yard sign in her front lawn. But it has Beach crying foul over what has become a war of words between the two men.

“My opponent is trying to scare people,” said Beach, who doesn’t believe his opponent has presented actual solutions to the problems involving traffic or other issues that upset residents. In lieu of that, Beach said, Barlow has gone negative. “He had to tear me down. … He’s just attacking me.”

Attack, counterattack

Senate District 21 stretches from North Fulton up into Cherokee County to Ball Ground, a solidly conservative swath. No Democrats are challenging for the seat, leaving Beach and Barlow to duke it out in the primary winner-take-all. A random and unscientific sampling of voters last week found traffic, taxes and growth as top concerns, as well as a general distrust in the area’s urban center to the south, Atlanta.

That includes related issues such as MARTA, which for the first time in decades won the ability from the Legislature this year to expand its rail system in Atlanta. That plan does not immediately include North Fulton and does not go into Cherokee (an expansion not allowed under the state constitution), but Beach’s push for a broader effort to let MARTA expand has become one of the central issues for both his opponent and voters in the race.

“I’m not overly anxious for MARTA to come here,” said Alpharetta resident Betty Yarborough, a longtime Republican voter.

Yet campaign materials supporting Barlow have landed in local mailboxes suggesting Beach would help MARTA expand past Fulton’s boundaries — something rebutted in last week’s Cherokee Tribune by MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe.

Barlow, meanwhile, isn’t opposed to transit but said fixed rail isn’t the answer. The Milton resident might push for bus-rapid transit or regional bus lines, options that are more flexible than tracks would be. Barlow wants to widen roads in Cherokee County. He wants more north-south connections, and he said the number of “cow pastures” in Cherokee means roads can be built or expanded more easily to help ease commute times.

Beach, a former state Department of Transportation board member who lives in Alpharetta, said all options should be on the table — rail where it’s applicable, bus-rapid transit or extra lanes on the highway. But without some form of expanded transit, he said, companies such as Athena Health will continue to leave the area for more accessible places.

His supporters have all but accused Barlow of carpetbagging, sending out mailers that say the “invisible” Barlow “wants to buy a Senate district” and doesn’t understand local issues. Legal records show Barlow as recently as last year listing a Chicago mailing address, something Barlow says was the result of a work assignment.

When Beach talks about Barlow, he makes sure to mention Barlow’s condo in Chicago and the fact that he was renting out his Georgia home. Barlow says his residency never changed. Beach has not filed an official challenge to Barlow’s residency. Barlow said he has had lawyers review his situation to make sure he was fine to jump into the race.

The Georgia Constitution stipulates that members of the Senate must be citizens of the United States, at least 25 years old, a resident of the state of Georgia for at least two years, and a legal resident of the district the senator was elected from for at least one year.

Mailers supporting Barlow have labeled Beach a “liar.” Barlow says Beach can’t beat him on issues, so he is attacking his family by questioning where they live.

‘Telling the truth seems negative’

The attacks seem likely to continue, with both candidates stockpiling cash for the effort.

Barlow is largely self-funding his campaign and has loaned himself about $315,000, with no disclosed contributions of more than $1,000, according to state records.

Beach, meanwhile, reported about $122,000 in his campaign account at the start of April. Since then, he reported receiving an additional $157,000 in contributions of at least $1,000 each. Included in that amount was about $24,000 from road-builders and transportation companies and about $14,000 from fellow state senators and the Senate’s Republican president, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

The fact that companies with interest in state legislation and funding are contributing to his campaign is evidence of the good job he’s doing, said Beach, who heads the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m anything but establishment,” he added. “You can tell by the issues I’ve taken on.”

Barlow, in turn, called Beach “a special-interest, establishment candidate (who) talks like a conservative but legislates like a bought-and-paid-for politician.”

Barlow wants to reduce the regulation and licensing requirements for small businesses. Requiring athletic trainers and cosmetologists to be licensed doesn’t do anything for public safety, he said, and slows down business growth. It only serves to add money to the state’s coffers.

Beach says he has supported tax policies that helped lure companies such as Caterpillar and Baxter, as well as the movie industry, to Georgia.

And whether Beach wants it or not, the establishment is ready to back him.

“I’m supporting him wholeheartedly,” said Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs. His North Fulton city is outside Beach’s district, but the former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party is among a number of established GOPers who have come to the senator’s defense.

“To lose him, in my opinion, would be a major blow to the Senate,” Paul said, adding that he felt that way in part because of Beach’s recognition of the importance of transit, and MARTA in particular. All of the north metro area is afflicted by traffic issues, but Beach has shown he understands the importance of better traffic flow to economic development, Paul said.

“When the challenger starts hammering on the incumbent, you’ve got to respond,” he said. “Sometimes, telling the truth seems negative.”

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