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May 1st, 2010
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Sparks fly in GOP D-56 State Senate Debate


You might not expect much demarcation in a debate among three Republicans, but the candidates for the Northside's main State Senate seat offered guns at universities, a second penny in sales tax for transportation and even a clampdown on immigration -- along with a healthy dose of criticism of each other.

By Maggie Lee / Staff


You might not expect much demarcation in a debate among three Republicans, but the candidates for the Northside's main State Senate seat offered guns at universities, a second penny in sales tax for transportation and even a clampdown on immigration -- along with a healthy dose of criticism of each other.


Roswell businessman John Albers, North Fulton Chamber of Commerce CEO Brandon Beach and Alpharetta City Councilman David Belle Isle are vying for veteran senator Dan Moody's chair after his retirement this year.


The three met in a debate this week where they took questions both from The Beacon's editorial staff and from each other.


MILTON COUNTY


The three candidates stepped all over each other to offer the best plan to re-create a Milton County separate from Fulton. The issue, essentially a non-starter until at least 2011 General Assembly session, still evokes the most emotion from frustrated North Fulton County residents, providing candidates with an indispensable stream of Northside-centric political rhetoric.


Albers, chair of the Alpharetta Public Safety Foundation, said North Fulton ought to start dividing emergency communications – like getting reliable police and fire radios -- saying, "even if we were to create Milton County tomorrow, it would take years to separate services."

A jovial Fulton GOP Chair Shawn Hanley opened the event, poking fun at Beach for being as bald as himself and predicting the other two would join them soon. Photo by Kent McCorkle.


He also suggested starting on a North Fulton School System.  But since that would take a state constitutional amendment, and couldn't start until at least 2013, opponents branded Albers' ideas as impractical. But Albers said community leaders would surely step up to the plate when the time came.


Beach argued for a Milton that can cough up some economic development dollars to top the current "zero" that Fulton sends to the Northside.


And Belle Isle, the strict constitutionalist and unabashed conservative in the race, said the citizens of North Fulton deserve local control.


ETHICS


Days before the debate, the Georgia House and Senate passed an ethics bill that requires more disclosure from politicians and lobbyists but stops short of some of the reforms proposed in the aftermath of former House Speaker Glenn Richardson's departure on embarrassing ethics allegations.


The law however leaves a loophole open. Legislators must report gifts from registered lobbyists -- but that only includes the 1,500 or so capitol hallway hangers-out with badges. If an industry lobbyist for example, arranges a meeting between a CEO and a legislator, but is not present himself, no one is obligated to report.


Some Democrat legislators proposed expanding the definition of lobbyist to anyone who attempts to influence legislation. That idea, floated earlier this year, might have included people who research white papers all the way up to CEOs. It's absent from this year's final bill.


But such a wide definition might have included Beach himself. His chamber, in partnership with other development bodies, works with shared lobbyists.


When asked if his election would present a conflict of interest, he insisted, "I don't think it's a conflict of interest.


"I'd say it's a concurrence of interest," arguing that both citizens and business seek water, education, transportation, low taxes and quality healthcare.


Democratic or Independent businesspeople won't be discouraged at an ostensibly nonpartisan chamber led by a Republican senator, Beach asserted.  Of the Georgia Department of Transportation, where he sits on the governing body, he said, "I get phone calls, whether it's for curb cuts, traffic lights, dangerous intersections ... I don't ask if they're Democrat or Republican. I say how can I help you?"

"We don't need any more politicians in office … politicians think of the next election, statesmen think of the next generation," said John Albers, who's never held elective office. Photo by Kent McCorkle


But Albers shot back that Beach's self-defense "smells fishy" because "it is fishy," and that Beach is bringing blatant partisanship into business. As for ethics legislation overall, he said there's already too much conflict of interest and lobbyist influence at the state capitol. He said the ethics legislation is merely "a good first step."


ALBERS' RESUME QUESTIONED


Beach questioned Albers' resume. At a previous forum, Albers said he ran a $5 billion division of AT&T, but a former AT&T Global president -- Beach donor Dick Anderson -- said he never heard of Albers. The first-time candidate backpedalled and said that he was responsible for "large parts of a $5 billion organization," but that AT&T is a huge conglomerate, with hundreds of thousands of employees, thus it's no surprise that he and Anderson were unacquainted.


But Beach didn’t buy it, and fired back: "If somebody ran a $5 billion dollar division, the CEO, the president of global services would know about that business."


Albers was also forced to clarify a claim he made at another forum: that he'd started, grown and sold four companies. When first confronted with the query, Albers dismissed the question, saying it was "negative campaigning" and had nothing to do with the issues confronting the state. Albers made the point that he wasn't "a politician" like his opponents.


But Belle Isle mocked his answer. "A politician doesn't answer the question.  And I didn't hear the answer to the question."


Albers then named the four companies, but had to admit that some of them were partnerships or he was a shareholder. "Let's get back to the issues, folks," he asserted. "If that's intimidating people, I don't care."


BUDGET STIMULUS


Belle Isle is the candidate of tea partiers, in large part for his immovable opposition to the federal American Recovery and Relief Act, the so-called federal stimulus.


The Alpharetta City Councilman has firmly pinned his campaign hopes on those principles by voting against city improvements that tap into federal funds -- though with the knowledge that other councilors would approve things like new street crossings and tree plantings in downtown Alpharetta partially funded by ARRA.


"Government or its agencies don't create jobs … it can take them from one person and give them to another," Belle Isle said, adding that the state needs "real jobs," not stimulus-funded work.


Georgia's budget gap for the year ending in June 2010 was plugged with federal stimulus funds; the state used about $1.4 billion of it altogether. Most was tied to certain programs, but the state's having to tap about $300 million that would have been saved for the next year just to keep creditors at bay in the coming months. 


Asked how he would have made up the budget without stimulus, Belle Isle named an idea that's been little-touted by anyone: limit immigration.


"If we just enforce the laws we have on the books … it would save $1.5 billion dollars, he said, by keeping services like Medicaid from illegal immigrants. His figures came from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization founded by controversial nativist John Tanton.


Albers and Beach said they opposed the stimulus too, but maintained that if the money's already been taken from North Fulton, they might as well try to get it back.


Beach made the point of saying that if he was a U.S. Congressman, he would have voted against the stimulus plan.


TRANSPORTATION AND TAXES


GDOT is using federal funds for about $1 billion in major builds like roads, bridges and rail. Beach, wearing his GDOT hat, stoutly defended taking the funds.


"If you didn't have projects that were shovel-ready you had to give the money back to Washington and it would be sent to other states," Beach argued.


"The money was there, it created jobs," he added.


Metro taxpayers will probably directly cough up the money for future big builds. A new law that's likely to be signed by the Governor divides the state into 12 districts and lets each one choose whether to vote itself a one-cent sales tax for transit and transport.


That would mean a so-called second transport penny in Fulton and DeKalb if the metro votes yea in 2012.


The two already pay a penny for MARTA.


"This second penny's not going to do it" anyway, claimed Beach.


Earlier this year, MARTA CEO Beverly Scott said that she would need 65 percent of a second metro-wide penny just to operate MARTA, not expand it.


None of the candidates support the second penny, but expressed limited support for the bill as a first step. "We've got to spend taxes where they're raised," said Belle Isle, adding that's a better system than splitting transport money equally across the state.

"There's a reason why receiving stolen goods is a crime," said David Belle Isle, comparing federal stimulus dollars to hot goods. Photo by Kent McCorkle.


PLAYING THE PONIES


Veteran north Fulton Republican legislator Harry Geisinger this year floated a bill to put the option of pari-mutuel horse racing to a statewide referendum, claiming it would create 10,000 new jobs in the thoroughbred racing industry. The bill failed to get much traction this year, but the representative stands by the concept, and pledged to push for it again next session.


If Belle Isle wins, District 56 would not send him a Senate ally.  He was skeptical: "I'm not aware of any problem that gambling has solved."


But Beach, native to Louisiana where such gaming is legal, called it a huge business and a great idea for job creation.


Albers said he'd leave the question to the people. As a constitutional amendment, horse betting would require statewide voter approval.


Both men said they'd require it to fund education, much like the HOPE Grant.


BELLE ISLE: GEORGIA REPUBLCANS "NOT CONSERVATIVE ENOUGH"


When asked about his criticism of state Republicans, and reminded of a charge he made last year that some representatives in the GOP majority were governing like Democrats and should consider switching parties, Belle Isle clarified his comments. "I didn't say they weren't   Republican enough. I would have said [they're] not conservative enough."


Belle Isle added, "All you need to do is make something politically profitable so even the wrong people will do the right thing. That's what this tea party movement is about," he said, explaining that voters ought to require their politicians act good and then reward them with votes.


FOLLOW THE MONEY


Local business leaders, some noted Republican office-holders and political action committees are betting on a Beach win. In the first quarter of this year his campaign received a few thousand dollars in money from PACs and big corporations. By the same date, Belle Isle and Albers had received no big lobby donations.


Beach led the fundraising sweepstakes with $133,000 as of March 31. Belle Isle, positioning himself as a candidate who doesn't care much about the establishment anyhow, has collected a respectable list of more modest donations totaling just over $50,000 for the whole campaign cycle.

Brandon Beach said Georgia must do away with corporate income taxes, look again at property taxes and move toward taxing consumption. Photo by Kent McCorkle.


And Albers is financing his own campaign -- in the last quarter, he got only $700 from just two donors. But Albers says he's prepared to spend $200,000 of his own money to win.


FINAL ANALYSIS


The debate saw each candidate remain true to form: each man stuck pretty well to the line he's hewn.


Albers is the warm, friendly and engaging candidate who wants to serve his constituents and be accessible to all. Short on specifics, he uses his resume for political credibility. Questions about his past accomplishments may dog him if they are not addressed quickly.


Beach, the early favorite, is the opposite of Albers. He's the policy wonk, with a plethora of ideas for future legislation. He's positioned himself as the "jobs candidate."


Belle Isle is the philosopher in the race. He's speaks of a bigger picture, where Republicans have to take back their souls and govern on conservative principles.


The district, which takes in all of Roswell, north Sandy Springs and a slice of Alpharetta, is heavily Republican. The winner of the GOP nomination will be the next state senator.


Area primary voters will pick one of the lines … and next January will tell if the new Senator is both strong and flexible enough to draw his line through the thick of the General Assembly. 


The primary is July 20.

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