By Maggie Lee
By January, one of the people running for lieutenant governor will hold one of the most powerful posts in state politics. That’s because the winner presides over the state Senate, giving them great influence over what bills move through — and which don’t.
Right now, the primaries are on, with candidates seeking the nod from their party’s voters to head to the general election. All the major party candidates met in debates in Atlanta on Thursday.
First, the Republicans who want to be lieutenant governor, all three of whom have held elected office: Geoff Duncan, Rick Jeffares and David Shafer.
Shafer is likely the frontrunner, going by fundraising and a late April poll — though all three are in the same league. Shafer raised almost $1.6 million through March 31, to Jeffares’ roughly $826,000 and Duncan’s approximately $788,000 (about a quarter of which are loans to his own campaign.) Cash has since continued to run into campaigns on both sides of the aisle, sometimes as much as several thousand of dollars a day.
But “undecided” still beat all three candidates in a poll of 507 likely Republican primary voters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late April. In that poll, Shafer took 14 percent, Duncan 12 percent and Jeffares 7 percent. The poll has a 4.4-point margin of error.
All three said they’re strong Second Amendment supporters and talk on their websites about values or conservative values.
Duncan sat in the state House — representing a Forsyth County district —from 2013 through late 2017, when he departed to focus on the statewide lieutenant governor campaign. He said he’s looking for voters who are looking for an outsider and a business owner. Nearly 20 years ago, he and his wife started a marketing firm, which they later sold. He’s subsequently worked as an entrepreneur and investor. While in the state House, probably his most high-profile committee assignment was Ways and Means, which reviews tax bills. One of his most high-profile pieces of legislation was the creation of a state tax credit for donations for rural hospitals — many of those hospitals are losing money as they serve populations that are poorer, sicker or older than folks in cities and suburbs. But some hospitals have struggled to attract donations, even with the tax break.
Duncan said he thinks that churches, charities, corporations and citizens ought to be the front line of defense against poverty, working on things like foster care, adoption, hunger and health care for low-income people.
“On its best day, a government program can only stabilize a situation. I think the four Cs are better equipped to come in and help folks transition out of poverty,” said Duncan.
Jeffares has come to the race down a path of local government and of business. He’s worked at the water departments of Henry County and of Covington, and he’s founder of a company that builds and services water and sewer infrastructure. He became a Henry County commissioner in 2008 and in 2010 was elected to the state Senate, which he left in late 2017 for this campaign. For a time in the state Senate, he chaired the Regulated Industries Committee, which hears bills on industries like utilities and and brewing. In 2017, he made headlines for carrying the so-called “beer bill.” It ended a long-running fight about beer sales by giving smaller brewers the right to sell a few six-packs directly to customers, bypassing Prohibition-era regulations that generally require brewers to sell through distributors.
Jeffares said Georgia is the No. 1 state to do business, but it’s got to do some things to maintain that, like improve transportation and get broadband into rural Georgia. On the higher education side, he said half of young people don’t go to college. “We need to accept that, so we need to get more technical high schools, we need to get them with trained skills, so at 18 years old they can go get a job,” he said.
Shafer has the longest political career, having joined the state Senate in 2002. The top photo on his website is not him on a farm or posing in front of an American flag. It’s a shot of him standing behind the ornate state Senate podium that would be his as lieutenant governor. He’s been president pro tempore of the state Senate, which gives him a couple of extra powers, including a voice in making committee assignments. And he’s a member of the powerful Finance and Appropriations committees. Outside of politics, he’s been part or full owner of several businesses, including in warehousing and taxi insurance.
One of the main planks in his platform is the phased elimination of state income tax, and he endorses former Congressman John Linder’s “Fair Tax.” That, as proposed by Linder, is a national sales tax that would replace several taxes, including income taxes.
“I believe that everyone should pay into the system,” said Shafer. “On the federal level, nearly half the people in this country don’t pay any federal income tax at all. And I think that everyone ought pay into the system because we all enjoy the benefits and the blessings and liberties of being Americans.”
On the Democratic side are two women, both of whom would be new to elected office: Sarah Riggs Amico and Triana Arnold James.
Most Democratic likely primary voters were undecided, according to an mid-April poll for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But James got 20 points in the poll of 473 people and Amico got 10 points. The poll has a 4.5-point margin of error.
Both made a point of saying they think teachers should be paid more — and that those educators shouldn’t be armed at work, as they have enough to do already without being in charge of security too.
Amico runs a car transport company, and she says the family-owned business employs thousands of union truckers and mechanics. At the debate, she said she’d draw on skills honed while managing a large and complex organization to solve problems in a chamber that’s likely to be controlled by a different party.
She said she wants her daughters to be able to grow up into a world where they can expect equal pay and equal treatment. But she said she’s coming to the race as a businesswoman as well. She said she’s spent the last 15 years solving problems that many political leaders said weren’t solvable.
“While your elected officials were talking about how to solve health care, I’ve been providing it to 3,500 families. While they were talking about what to do about parental leave, Ive been providing paid parental leave to my employees.”
James is an entrepreneur with many things on her resume, including as founder of The Susan Jolley Awareness Program, which aims to educate women on the impact and prevention of gynecological cancers.
Her fundraising total is low — incredibly low for someone trying to achieve name recognition across the state. But James said she thinks big money ought to be out of politics, and too many politicians make decisions based on the pocket, not on the people. She said it’s fine that she doesn’t have big endorsements because she’s endorsed by the people.
“I’m an advocate standing on advocating for Medicaid expansion, paying our teachers a livable wage, protecting our veterans, ratifying the equal rights amendment here in the state of Georgia,” said James, adding that she’d also aim to ban assault weapons and move to paper ballots, among other measures.
Early voting in the primaries is already underway. Election day is May 22.