Georgia voters are two weeks away from the state’s earliest primary vote on record. Two Republicans are challenging incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal in that primary. One is former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who has been running the north Georgia town known as the “carpet capital of the world” for six years. He’s been widely called a Tea Party candidate in this primary.
He told GPB recently he doesn’t agree with that label.
“You know, I think what people are interested in who are supporting my candidacy, No. 1, my past. I’ve shown that limited government does not mean limited possibilities. It means unlimited opportunities for entrepreneurs to start and build their businesses in Georgia. It means teachers being freed up to do what they have been trained to do, and I know they can do very, very well if you’ll get off their backs.
“The political pundits love labeling people, and that’s what they want to label me as. I’m not trying to get the right of anybody. This is who I am. If you’ve followed me at all over the last year, or five years ago, or when I [was] mayor, I don’t change positions. If you like me today, you’ll like me tomorrow. If you don’t like me today, you’re not going to like me tomorrow either, ‘cause I’m not going to change.”
Pennington says his experience as Dalton’s mayor qualifies him for the governor’s mansion as much as anyone else who’s held the post. He says few come to the job having run as large an organization as Georgia’s state government.
“If you look at every governor that we’ve had, tell me who’s run a big operation? I mean, Nathan Deal came from running a congressional operation with a little over a $1 million dollar budget. City of Dalton has a general fund budget of close to $30 million. We own Dalton Utilities, which is a billion-dollar utility, which is a partner in Plant Vogtle with Georgia Power. So I believe a city such as Dalton, being the top elected official in that, is far more experience than what anybody who’s been governor of Georgia that I can think of.”
Pennington’s right that no governor in the last four decades ran anything as large as state government before their election. Deal’s congressional district included about 800,000 constituents over the years. Dalton’s population is about 33,000.
An insurance salesman by trade, Pennington says he ran for mayor in his hometown because the city was lacking visionary leadership. He says the same is now true for the whole state.
“If you look at what recovery we’ve had since the recession, it’s only because the nation has recovered somewhat. You know, Georgia still has the fundamental issues that it had before the recession. We were declining before the recession. If you think back, we were beginning to have trouble funding our schools even before the recession hit, and that’s because Georgia’s not competitive from a tax and regulatory standpoint, and it needs a new vision.
“I can’t think of a leader in Georgia that’s had a vision or a plan for Georgia in many, many years. And the real shame of that is, Georgia should be in the top 10 of states economically in all most every category.”
Of course, Deal has been touting a recent Site Selection Magazine ranking that said Georgia is the top state in the nation to do business. Pennington dismissed that distinction.
“You get ranked No. 1 if you’re willing to give away plenty of free land, plenty of tax breaks and offer cheap labor. No state has ever created wealth by bribing foreign capitalists to put a plant here.”
So in a crowded primary field with a popular incumbent governor, how does Pennington set himself apart? He went back to his business background.
“No. 1, I’m a professional businessperson, I’m not a politician. As a businessperson, you know, I’ve had to basically earn my living in spite of government, where the other two in the race have earned their living off of government. When you haven’t been on the other side, as a lot of us are, you don’t understand where this state and country have gone in the last few years. It’s making it very, very difficult for private businesspeople to be able to make a living and to create the wealth that we need to.”
That’s an argument candidates of both parties have made in recent years. Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is selling her “outsider” experience this year. So is Republican Senate candidate Karen Handel.
So far, Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign has declined GPB’s interview invitations. But click here for GPB’s conversation with GOP candidate and State School Superintendent John Barge.
And tune in to GPB TV May 14 for a live Atlanta Press Club gubernatorial debate. Pennington and Barge have both committed to participate in that event.