A World War II veteran battles for re-election in Georgia

Turns out, the only adjustment Rodney Sizemore needs is to his checkbook. After politely introducing himself, the 10th-grade math teacher makes a small donation toward Mathiak’s campaign to win a seat in the Georgia House, then accepts her quick offer to throw in a campaign sign for his yard.

“Twenty years,” Sizemore says of Mathiak’s opponent, “is too long for anybody.”

That opponent, John Yates, still gets misty-eyed talking about his first election in 1989 as one of the Georgia House’s few Republicans. Now, during a primary runoff in what he has said would be his last re-election bid, the 94-year-old legislator from Griffin is trying to avoid an undignified exit from a state Legislature he helped turn red.

Defeat of Yates, the last World War II veteran still serving at the statehouse, would represent an end of an era at the Capitol and is one of the headline races in Tuesday’s statewide runoff election.

Seats still up for grabs in the election include the GOP contest between Mike Crane and Drew Ferguson for Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District; and a Democratic battle between former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones and legal support consultant Rhonda Taylor for state House District 91, which covers parts of DeKalb and Rockdale counties.

Atlanta and Clayton County, among others, have Superior Court races up for grabs.

Yates, whose framed war medals line his second-floor Capitol office, is one of two prominent GOP House incumbents facing runoffs after failing to get enough votes in the state’s May general primary. The other is state Rep. Tom Dickson, a retired school superintendent from Whitfield County who fell 16 votes short of an outright win and now faces Chatsworth farmer Jason Ridley in the runoff.

For Yates, who is chairman of the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee and a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, this final challenge is as much about him going out on his own terms.

“I don’t think anybody takes this job more seriously than I do,” said Yates, who lives on the same farm where he grew up during the Great Depression. “I’m still in a position to help people, and I’m very proud of what I do.”

The race seems less about policy issues than style and presence.

It is almost redundant to call Yates old-school: He drives his pickup truck to the Capitol two to three times a week to hold office hours, and he takes great pride in responding to constituents. He will tell anyone that the reason he first ran for office boiled down to this: “I wrote my representative three letters and he didn’t answer any of them.”

But as much as he takes pride in his physical stamina, so does his opponent. At 60, the Michigan-raised Mathiak has spent more than 30 years in Georgia establishing both personal and Republican Party ties. While Yates talks of newsletters and email, Mathiak is active on Facebook and social media, a Bluetooth headset constantly around her neck and smartphone by her side.

Both Yates and Mathiak tout talking points that do well in the conservative House District 73, which includes parts of Fayette, Henry and Spalding counties. For Yates, it’s veterans and education issues, both of which played huge roles in his life. Mathiak also emphasizes career education and the economy, and says she wants the state to implement “Fair Tax” changes that include a reduction or even elimination of state income taxes in return for higher sales taxes.

Both have established ties to the Republican Party. While Yates touts being the first Republican elected in Spalding County since just after Reconstruction, Mathiak served a decade as the party’s county chairwoman.

The winner will face a Democrat, real estate developer Rahim Talley, in November.

Yates is the establishment, something he knows could turn voters sour at the polls, but he is popular among his colleagues: About 75 percent of the money Yates has raised since the end of the session has come from fellow Republican House members. That includes House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who last week said he supported Yates because he was “a true American hero.”

But for Mathiak, an avid horse rider with a white shock of spiked hair, this felt like the right time to make a challenge. She has tapped into her own industry to help make that push, with about 85 percent of her fundraising coming from fellow chiropractors or others involved in that industry.

“I do believe in term limits,” she said. “After more than 23 years, you just get stale.”

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