By Tom Baxter
Compared to more competitive years, the scene at the Capitol on the final day of qualifying to run for state offices last Friday was pretty listless. With a new map drawn by the Republican majority, the number of truly competitive seats continues to dwindle, and the prospects for a tea party uprising in this summer’s Republican primaries fizzled as the qualifying period inched toward the noon deadline.
But this process, which separates with a check those who are serious from those who’re just talking about it, always generates a little drama, and there was some in both parties on Friday.
About 15 minutes before the deadline, Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour showed up at the door of the House, where Republicans were qualifying. That wouldn’t be such a big deal, but for the ethics complaints alleging he filed false expense reports and the rumors he could be a tea party target.
In a long journalistic career, I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “insouciant,” but when an incumbent facing this kind of scrutiny over his acceptance of legislative perks shows up to qualify in a Master’s golf shirt, it may be time to dust it off.
This air of blithe unconcern frayed a little when a scrum of reporters caught up with the Snellville legislature after he signed up. Balfour said he thought the proposed $100 limit on gifts to legislators was “probably coming,” although he didn’t plan to sign the petition being circulated among candidates himself.
A few minutes later, when Common Cause chairman William Perry approached Balfour with the petition, he signed it. You could call this a flip-flop on Balfour’s part, but the best word would probably be capitulation. He dodged a challenge from Debbie Dooley, the co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, but drew two other challengers from that direction, Steve Ramey and Travis Bowden. He likely looked upon signing the petition as a way of cutting his losses and moving on.
On the Democratic side, the drama centered around two young DeKalb County representatives, Elena Parent and Scott Holcomb, who were drawn into the same district in the new legislative map. Friends and former law firm colleagues, they agreed not to run against each other and announce the painful decision about who was going to step aside on the final qualifying day.
Holcomb “lost the coin toss,” as he put it, and will run against either Chris Boedeker or Carla Roberts, who oppose each other in the Republican primary. Parent is leaving to become executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer group with a big Capitol presence.
“We knew that we would not run against each other because we can take the long view and we know that there’s plenty of time for us both to serve in elective office in Georgia,” Parent said after qualifying ended.
With Republicans solidly in control of the legislature for the foreseeable future, the long view is the only option for ambitious young Democrats like these. The question is, how long is long? The party needs to lay the groundwork, Parent said, but within “a few cycles” it could again become a force in legislative politics.
“I think most observers would agree the Democrats actually have a much stronger group of talented young elected officials than the Republicans, and because of that, we were paired together,” Holcomb said. “There’s no doubt about it that this is not a coincidence. This was a deliberate effort by the majority party to eliminate one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party.”
Holcomb noted that he wrestled with whether he wanted to run again, even after Parent made the decision to step aside and take the Georgia Watch job, because politics has become “so unbelievably coarse, so unbelievably nasty.”
Holcomb, who has some time invested in his political career, made the decision to go on. But the coarse and nasty nature of politics kept a lot of people in both parties who might have sought office from showing up last week. A sleepy qualifying period is a good thing for incumbents only.