Stay or go? This year’s crop of candidates will stay put in Legislature

Georgia’s state Capitol.
Georgia’s state Capitol.

Every two years, ambitious Georgia lawmakers seeking higher office face an early decision that helps define their campaign: to resign their seat in the General Assembly and hit the trail or stay put and forfeit three months they could spend raising cash and connecting with voters.

This crop of candidates has issued a resounding verdict. All three state lawmakers running for suburban U.S. House seats — two Democrats and one Republican — have decided to stay in office.

It will inject even more politics into an election-year legislative session, which starts in January and runs about three months. The session will give them a chance to promote their campaign priorities and a showcase to raise their profile with major votes and attention-grabbing speeches.

But with the decision, they’re also depriving themselves of a chance to focus solely on their campaign and devote more time to meet with voters, raise campaign cash and speak at events.

Look no further than last year for an example of why not stepping down can be a tricky decision. Republican Brian Kemp was relentlessly criticized for remaining in his job as secretary of state, a role that includes overseeing the state’s elections, as he ran for governor.

That helped frame a race that was rocked the weekend before the vote by an accusation he made without evidence that the state Democratic Party attempted to hack the state's voter registration system. The party vigorously denies any wrongdoing, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation earlier launched a probe that has yet to release any results a year after the election.

The decision for federal candidates is a bit easier. Contenders running for state legislative seats or constitutional office can’t raise campaign money during a session that would likely stretch into April, while candidates for federal office can. Still, the stay-or-go conflict has led to much second-guessing.

Republican Ed Lindsey felt his decision to stay in the Georgia House rather than step down while running for Congress in 2014 was the “politically smart” decision at the time — though he later came to regret it. He later said he wished he had stepped down to just “go for it.”

Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor last year, made up her mind to step down in 2017 when she acknowledged a hard political truth: The Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature would block any significant policy victories the moment she entered the race.

“At the end of the day, you are there to be effective. As a candidate for higher office, in the minority party, you will not be allowed to be effective,” she said.

“The majority party is not going to allow you any policy wins. So you have to weigh what it is worth to the district for you to remain. The answer is probably not much.”

‘Don’t believe in quitting’

The three congressional candidates in the Legislature each said she weighed similar considerations before deciding to stay put.

Although the legislative session will give them a prominent platform to promote their campaigns, each also faces stiff opposition from rivals in her own party who have unfettered access to the campaign trail — and no contentious votes or thorny issues to decide next year.

The last legislative session offered a snapshot of that give and take. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was the Republican front-runner for governor as the 2018 legislative session gaveled into order.

Seeking conservative support, Cagle blocked a tax break that would benefit Delta Air Lines after the Atlanta-based company waded into the gun control debate. Gun rights groups were elated, but Democrats and pro-business boosters were infuriated.

And state Sen. David Shafer, then a candidate for lieutenant governor, grappled with a sexual harassment complaint filed by a lobbyist he said was "completely fabricated" and motivated by politics. The complaint was dismissed by a Senate panel a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained an investigative report raising questions about the allegations.

But no figure sparked more controversy in deciding not to step down than Kemp, who remained as secretary of state despite criticism from Democrats and watchdog advocates who said he shouldn’t stay in an office that oversees elections while he’s running for governor.

That came to a head in the final weeks of the race, as his office was peppered with federal lawsuits and complaints about massive lines, problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and other clashes involving ballot access.

Kemp resigned days after his election victory, saying that he "wasn't going to run from my job" and wasn't concerned about criticism that he brought a partisan mindset to the role.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, one of a half-dozen Republicans running in the 7th Congressional District, cited Kemp as a factor in her decision to stay as one of the Senate's most prominent GOP lawmakers while she's running for the Gwinnett County-based seat.

“I don’t believe in quitting,” said Unterman, who shepherded the state’s new anti-abortion law through the Senate this year. “Like Governor Kemp serving out his term as secretary of state when he ran for governor, I will fulfill my commitment to the voters who put me in office.”

‘Stand up’

Two of her Democratic colleagues also running in the 7th District will stick around the Legislature next year. State Sen. Zahra Karinshak said her run for Congress won't affect her ability to represent her Duluth-based territory in the state Senate.

“I’m excited to keep working to improve schools, health care, transportation, and to continue fighting for women’s reproductive rights,” she said.

The same goes for state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero. She said she wants to be a voice for her Norcross-based district with votes on education policy, budget cuts and other tricky debates.

“I believe that voters of the 7th Congressional District will see the work commitment, advocacy and voter engagement in the state Legislature as the proven record of my resolve to stand up and be a strong voice,” she said.

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