By Tom Baxter
John Barge had a doctor’s appointment in Rome on the morning of Snow Jam 14, so he was late getting off on his morning commute to Atlanta. His car was already slipping on the ice by the time he got to Cartersville, so he decided to call the state superintendent’s office in Atlanta and tell them to close up shop.
The state superintendent doesn’t make the call on whether to close schools, but Barge at least had his office staff on the way home before the worst of the traffic havoc began.
So give Barge credit for good timing. He’ll need an awful lot of it if he has any hope of overtaking Gov. Nathan Deal in the short sprint to the May 20 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Bad weather has made it more difficult for Barge to keep to his 18-hour daily schedule, serving as superintendent by day and campaigning at night, in whatever part of the state his day job takes him. But it opens new territory in his fight to convince Republicans to vote against their incumbent.
“There are a lot of issues that people aren’t very happy with, the snow storm last week being one of them,” Barge said last week.
The Republican challenger said Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley showed “tremendous foresight” in declaring a state of emergency on Monday, the day before the winter storm hit the Southeast. While weather events can be unpredictable, Barge thinks Deal should have erred on the side of caution, considering how prone the transportation system is to overload.
Acting as Bentley did “would have prevented a lot school districts from even opening their doors. That could have saved a lot of stress and heartache on the part of parents, had we had a little bit of foresight,” Barge said.
This time around, Deal went Bentley’s route and preemptively declared a state of emergency Monday afternoon, surrounded by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and a bevy of top state and local brass. The question of the week is going to be whether his handling of the latest weather event reverses the political damage of two weeks ago.
Barge said the metro area has grown so large, it may be time for the school superintendents to begin acting together as a regional group, perhaps getting together in a quick conference call during emergencies like this to map a coordinated strategy.
Barge is an interesting Georgian. The youngest of five children of a working-class, alcoholic father who died when he was 18, Barge was raised in Smyrna, but he says his horizons were so limited he hardly knew anything about Atlanta or the rest of the metro area growing up. His mental map of the metro area was framed by the suburban lawns he mowed to bring in extra money.
He got to Berry College on a scholarship, settled in Rome, and began working his way up the ladder of public education. He was curriculum director with the Bartow County school system four years ago when he decided to take a shot at running for state superintendent. Barge wasn’t the anointed Republican candidate in that complicated race, but he caught some of that year’s anti-establishment spirit and won the office, beholden to no one in particular.
He says the superintendent’s office has done a lot of things differently since he took office, including reaching out to business and industry to develop meaningful curriculums. Georgia today ranks higher in its SAT, ACT and advanced placement scores than it has at any time in its history, and is “graduating more students, with higher expectations” than ever before.
Differences with Deal over education funding led Barge into this very long-shot challenge, but he’s offered ideas on other issues, including a proposal to contract with insurance companies to create a Medicaid Advantage plan to cover the state’s indigent health care needs. He isn’t exactly clear on how that meshes with the decision over whether to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, but he seems more flexible than Deal on the subject.
He has his favorites among former governors, “and unfortunately not many of them are from my party.” Barge said he admires Zell Miller for his bipartisanship, and Joe Frank Harris for his quiet demeanor and the way he went back to being a private citizen after leaving office.
Although they’ve both been on the campaign trail for months, Barge said he only recently met Dalton Mayor David Pennington, Deal’s other Republican challenger, at a recent GOP event. Neither has much money or much time, but the fact that Deal has drawn two challengers speaks to his vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, everybody has their eye on the weather.