The runoff season — which began for some races when no one primary candidate managed to capture 50 percent of the electorate May 20 — has seen several competitive races take a negative turn as the July 22 election approaches.
Former commission Chairman Bill Byrne and former Acworth Alderman Bob Weatherford have been locked in a tight contest for outgoing Commissioner Helen Goreham’s seat representing northwest Cobb, a race that has seemingly pitted grassroots support against the influence of Cobb Chamber leaders.
Among the most contentious contests to be decided is the runoff between Barry Loudermilk, a former state senator from Bartow County, and Bob Barr, a former congressman and presidential candidate, for U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey’s seat representing the 11th District. Gingrey vacated his seat to launch an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. Both candidates have dug up unflattering pieces of each other’s history in their attempts to prove themselves the more worthy choice.
Also in a runoff are Cobb Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman and prosecutor Ann Harris, who are vying for retiring Judge Jim Bodiford’s seat on the Cobb Superior Court bench, and Cobb school board member Tim Stultz, who is defending his post against education consultant Susan Thayer.
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said there’s always “a bit of a risk involved” when runoff opponents decide to launch attacks on each other.
“There’s always a calculation,” Swint said. “When you’re going to attack your opponent, you’re going to take some heat yourself. So you better make sure, if you’re going to go after your opponent, the attack hurts him more than it hurts you.”
Byrne vs. Weatherford
While Weatherford has tried to shine a spotlight on alleged missteps of Byrne’s chairmanship, Byrne has honed in on his opponent’s close ties to the leaders of the chamber after the two edged out three other candidates in the GOP primary for the commission seat.
“It’s gotten significantly dirtier,” Byrne said of the runoff.
Byrne has accused “John Loud and all of his chamber buddies” of investing thousands of dollars into attacking his record. Loud is Weatherford’s campaign manager.
Anthony-Scott Hobbs, former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, said if chamber leadership has given heavily to Weatherford’s campaign, it should raise the question of what they expect in return.
“I don’t hear Bob talking as much for his campaign as I do the special interests involved with his campaign,” said Hobbs.
Weatherford called negative charges about his connections “ludicrous.”
“(Byrne) had no problem being connected to the chamber when he was the chairman,” Weatherford said. “Now he’s just upset that no one in the chamber is donating any money to his campaign.”
Tensions have risen among supporters of both sides because of a recent flurry of negative mailers known as “slick sheets.”
Weatherford said his campaign was not behind a pair of mailers that attacked Byrne on his support of the Bedminster composting plant — an ultimately defective operation that cost the county millions — and a failed monorail proposal, both controversies from his tenure as chairman.
“Apparently, when he was chairman, he made a lot of enemies,” Weatherford said. “I have nothing to do with that, they did.”
“His wife and everybody on Facebook has been accusing me and my campaign manager of being part of it,” Weatherford said. “Prove it! I don’t know anything about it.”
Weatherford added his campaign has only authorized three mailers, each citing facts from Byrne’s record “verbatim.”
Yet Byrne believes the slick sheets are a sign of a campaign in trouble.
“It’s an embarrassment for those who do it, and it’s offensive for those who receive it,” Byrne said of the mailers. “From a political perspective, that just indicates their campaign is very concerned, and they’ve lost the debate over the issues,” Byrne said, calling the attacks “an act of desperation.”
Butch Thompson, a former county commissioner, said there’s been “too much chatter” between Byrne and Weatherford over negative aspects of their respective candidacies.
“These slick sheets that just criticize everything about the opponent, it’s just wrong,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who said he’s supporting Byrne, a longtime friend, in the race, mentioned Weatherford’s proximity to the chamber and current Chairman Tim Lee as potential problems.
“I think (Weatherford) is hand-picked by some of the elected officials, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good,” Thompson said.
Chuck Clay, a former state senator who once chaired the Georgia Republican Party, said he’s mostly tried to avoid taking sides in the runoff, commending both candidates for their records.
“I suppose, if you push me, I would like to see Weatherford, just because it’s a new face,” Clay said, “I was a county commissioner, and if I ran again, I’d say don’t vote for me either!”
While Byrne was an “excellent chief executive of the county,” Clay said it could be difficult for him to go from that position to one of four district commissioners.
Hobbs, who is supporting Byrne, said the commissioner’s race, among others, reflects a growing trend within the GOP.
“You’re really starting to see the division in the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives,” Hobbs said, classifying Weatherford as the “moderate” and Byrne as the “conservative” in the contest.
Byrne, who placed first in the primary, noted his campaign donations have come from “normal people,” while Weatherford has received contributions from “big spenders.”
He said he intends to “remove the chamber’s voice” from the Board of Commissioners and replace it with that of west Cobb residents.
“Once they get their butts kicked, the balance of power on the Board of Commissioners changes from 3-2 vote endorsing the chamber’s agenda to a 3-2 vote in opposition of it,” Byrne said. “If I am fortunate enough to prevail, I will replace Helen Goreham, who is the maiden of the chamber and an automatic second vote for Tim Lee.”
Barr vs. Loudermilk
Barr and Loudermilk have ramped up the intensity of their personal and political punches since weeding out four other candidates in the May primary. Because no Democrat filed to run in the district, the winner of the runoff is expected to replace Gingrey in Congress.
“It’s been really heating up the last couple of weeks,” Swint said of the race.
Loudermilk said although his own campaign has tried to maintain its focus on the issues, “the tone has definitely changed” for his opponent since the runoff began.
Last month’s dust-up over allegations that Loudermilk had embellished his military service record put both campaigns on defense.
While Loudermilk decried what he saw as an “orchestrated attack on my military record,” Barr said he was not behind the accusations, which were publicized by a group of local veterans. He downplayed the fact his campaign manager, Jeff Breedlove, attended news conferences at which Loudermilk’s record was questioned.
“I think it was and is bothersome to the veterans,” Barr said of the controversy. He said most of the veterans he talks to are “very careful” not to misrepresent their military service.
“I think they were concerned and remain very concerned about that kind of embellishment.”
Swint said he is familiar with the comments in question, but said he didn’t get the impression that Loudermilk was being deceptive.
“That whole controversy might have been a little overblown,” Swint said. “I doubt it hurt the Loudermilk campaign very much.”
Dan McLagan, spokesman for Loudermilk, told the MDJ last month the accusations were an ineffective attempt to smear the former state senator.
“They’re drowning in a pool of their own blood,” McLagan said of the Barr campaign. “They’re getting slaughtered online. It’s brutal. They try to make an accusation when there’s no accusation.”
Loudermilk’s past again came under fire in recent weeks when leaked legal documents revealed his apparent involvement in a racism complaint filed by one of his former secretaries.
Buckley and Klein LLP, the firm that represented the woman in the 2011 dispute, did not return calls regarding the validity of the documents.
Loudermilk said he had no knowledge of the allegations until they were leaked, claiming the case had been sealed by a court order.
“I had never seen them. I didn’t know they existed until the other day,” Loudermilk said.
The documents allege the black secretary, who worked for Loudermilk and another state senator for about three weeks, was told during her termination that she was “not the face they want representing them to their constituents.”
Barr took a turn in the hot seat in May when Loudermilk’s campaign sent a wave of mailers highlighting the fact the former congressman had written a letter endorsing Eric Holder for the U.S. Attorney General position he now holds.
“It’s utterly irrelevant, in my view,” Barr said. “Clearly, it’s been taken over by events long ago, because I’ve called repeatedly for Eric Holder to resign. He conveniently left that out of his mailer.”
Loudermilk said he did not consider the Holder charge to be as negative an attack as the ones Barr has launched.
“I don’t see it the same, because all we’ve done is produce the letter he wrote,” Loudermilk said. “We haven’t fabricated anything. We haven’t really opined on it, other than ‘Bob Barr endorsed Eric Holder’ and we just provided the facts, whereas what Bob has done is really skewed information and presented false information and, in some cases, outright lies about me.”
Barr returned fire this week after Sarah Palin backed his opponent.
On his Twitter page, Barr challenged several news outlets reporting on the endorsement to ask “two-time loser” Karen Handel — who lost her primary bid for the U.S. Senate seat despite Palin’s support — “how well that Palin thing helped out.”
Sue Everhart, a Barr supporter and former chair of the state GOP, said she doesn’t think such endorsements make a difference in elections.
“People that vote based on endorsements, they’re not very political,” she said. “They’re letting somebody else’s opinion tell them who to vote for.”
Loudermilk touted his endorsements from both conservatives and GOP leadership, saying the “proverbial two sides of the Republican Party” support his campaign.
While Barr said he hasn’t experienced a low point in the race, which has brought “constant action” for his campaign, Loudermilk listed his opponent’s character attacks as the lowest point of his own experience.
“Seeing that side of Bob Barr was very disappointing to me,” Loudermilk said.
Stedman vs. Harris
The runoff between Stedman and Harris, who together fended off a third challenger in May, has stayed “very clean,” Thompson said.
“The judgeship is a perfect example of how race should be run,” Thompson said. “It’s talked about what they have to offer in the way of judicial experience. It’s just been extremely nice to see a clean type campaign.”
Swint said Superior Court races are “normally pretty civil.”
“They’re handled a little differently. They’re seen as nonpartisan,” Swint said.
Clay said the distribution of voter turnout will determine who ends up on the bench.
“If Marietta turns out harder and larger than the rest of the county, Juanita will win it,” Clay said. “If parts of east Cobb turn out, where Ann Harris ran strong, she’ll win it.”
Clay said Stedman’s “distinguished judicial career” has proven “hard to articulate in a sentence or two,” while Harris has easily branded herself as the “law and order” Cobb needs.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I put them all in jail, I’m the prosecutor,’” Clay said. “Juanita has been more about, ‘Let me tell you about the record I’ve done that has changed people’s lives.’ It’s a hard sell.”
Stultz vs. Thayer The race for a Cobb school board seat between incumbent Tim Stultz and Susan Thayer has made headlines in the past week because of provocative comments made by Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon.
Bacon openly criticized Stultz’s performance in a speech July 10 and attempted to discourage voters from casting ballots for the incumbent. Still, Bacon stopped short of fully endorsing Thayer, who became the subject of negative attention herself when a possible nepotism conflict arose last month.
Thayer claimed she was not aware of a state policy forbidding board members from serving if they have an immediate family member who is a “principal, assistant principal or system administrative staff” in their district. She had signed an affidavit March 5 confirming she had “read and understand the code of ethics and the conflict of interest provisions.”
Thayer’s husband, Ed Thayer, is supervisor of Lassiter High School’s Concert Hall.
Thompson said the criticisms of Stultz’s work on the board might be unwarranted.
“I honestly don’t see anything wrong with what Tim Stultz has been doing. I think he’s been very positive for what he’s been doing for the county,” Thompson said.
“When somebody serves in office, it’s easy to go back and dig up something you didn’t agree with.”