Believe it or not, there's a lot more than President Obama and Mitt Romney on the ballot this year. Early voting is already underway at the Athens-Clarke Board of Elections, but for all you undecided procrastinators out there, here's a little help making up your minds when you step into the voting booth.
House District 118
The Republican nominee for this northern and eastern Clarke County seat, Carter Kessler, has turned what once seemed like a cakewalk for Democrat Spencer Frye—once he ousted Rep. Keith Heard (D-Athens) in July—into a much more interesting race.
Kessler, a longtime Libertarian, went from railing against Obamacare, paper currency, public housing and fluoridated water earlier this year to staking out left-of-center positions on issues like education. His many mailers and signs—he's spent $90,0000 of his own money on the race—neglect to mention his party affiliation. The former Ron Paul campaign worker is reluctant to call himself a Libertarian anymore, referring to himself as "an American" who doesn't like to be labeled.
Frye, the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity executive director who ran for mayor in 2010, and Kessler 2.0 both favor funding education and social services, criminal justice reform and implementing the Affordable Care Act; they oppose drug-testing welfare recipients, voter ID requirements and the charter school amendment. Frye wants to raise cigarette taxes, but Kessler doesn't. In addition, Kessler is pushing a $200,000 cap on state salaries. "I believe when we cut, we need to cut from the top," he says.
Kessler says he'll be something of a mole within the House GOP majority, noting that establishment Republicans won't help his campaign and arguing that he can fight corruption from within. [House Speaker David Ralston says he never heard of Kessler until he read in Flagpole that Kessler called him crooked.]
At a forum last week, voters seemed confused about who is running on which ticket. Frye says Kessler is pivoting from the extreme right-wing to the middle and pretending he's a Democrat as a campaign tactic.
"I think it's important for Democrats to stand up for what they believe in, and that's what I'm doing," Frye says.
The race has been odd from the get-go, with Kessler opting to do community service for a DUI at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore under executive director Frye's supervision this summer.
Senate District 47
Democrat Tim Riley is hoping the third time's a charm. He has run for this seat twice before, including once against incumbent state Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, in 2010. This time, it's personal.
Riley, who is openly gay, recently married his longtime partner in Massachusetts and skipped a Barrow County forum last month. "That money [for the wedding] could be spent in Georgia if we weren't so close-minded," he says.
Meanwhile, the Barrow Journal quoted Ginn as saying he isn't comfortable appearing onstage with Riley because Riley is "not my cup of tea," leading the Atlanta website Project Q to accuse Ginn of gay-baiting. "He's a bully and a homophobe," Riley says.
Ginn told Flagpole he doesn't approve of homosexuality, but he wasn't referring to Riley's sexuality. Riley is "very abusive and harassing" during forums, Ginn says. "I'll be onstage with him, but he was very negative two years ago," he says.
Gay rights isn't the only issue in the race. Riley is also attacking Ginn on ethics reform, even though Ginn signed onto a bill that would cap gifts from lobbyists at $100. Ginn says he is focused on jobs and improving the economy.
The district still leans heavily Republican, but parts of Oglethorpe and Jackson counties were removed during redistricting last year, and it includes more voters in Democratic eastern Clarke County, so Riley may do better than in the past.
Public Service Commission
The PSC regulates Georgia Power and telephone and natural gas companies, so it has a big impact on Georgians' pocketbooks, but it doesn't always get a lot of attention. This year, two incumbent Republicans, Stan Wise and Chuck Eaton, are running for re-election.
Democrat Steve Oppenheimer, a retired dentist and clean-energy activist who is running against Eaton, wants to allow solar companies to compete with Georgia Power and for the utility giant to explore other energy sources, such as biomass and offshore wind.
"We're paying too much for energy, and we're not creating the good energy jobs we could be that we see in other Southern states," he says. Eaton says he "led the effort to lower electric rates for Georgia families by 6 percent," but Oppenheimer says rates have risen 24 percent in the past five years.
Eaton also takes credit for the legislature's recent repeal of the energy tax for manufacturers, which Caterpillar has credited as a factor in moving a plant to Athens.
Eaton, according to Oppenheimer, had a "battlefield conversion" in favor of solar power during the campaign. Eaton says he has "worked to include solar in our power generation mix," but prices came down dramatically only recently. "If we'd done what my opponent wishes and implemented more solar earlier, we would have paid three to four times as much for it than we can pay now," he says.
Ethics is another issue: 85 percent of Eaton's donations come from utilities, Oppenheimer says. "I'd say we have the fox guarding the henhouse," he says. But Eaton accuses Oppenheimer of accepting contributions from law firms and lobbyists whose clients have business before the commission.
A Libertarian, Brad Ploeger, is also running. He's unlikely to get more than 3 or 4 percent of the vote, but that could be enough to push the race into a runoff. Eaton says he expects Romney's coattails in Georgia to put him over the top.
Libertarian David Staples is the only option except Wise in the other PSC race. Staples, a Powder Springs resident who works in the telecommunications industry, was approached by both Democrats and Libertarians to run when no Democrat qualified in May. (The deadline for third-party candidates is later.) He has been endorsed by a bipartisan group of figures ranging from tea party leader Debbie Dooley to former Democratic Party of Georgia chairwoman Jane Kidd to the Sierra Club.
Like Oppenheimer, Staples is attacking his opponent on ethics. Wise, he says, gets 91 percent of his campaign money from utilities' representatives, including checks from Georgia Power lawyers two days before a hearing. "It looks like something improper, a conflict of interest, something that ought to be illegal if it isn't already," Staples says.
Staples, who describes himself as a "free market guy," is also focused on solar power. He wants to let homeowners who install solar panels sell the electricity they generate and put it out on the grid, an idea Georgia Power has fought.
Wise did not return a call seeking comment.
9th Congressional District
Athens voters might be familiar with the Republican candidate, former Gainesville state Rep. Doug Collins, from his bruising primary fight with talk-radio host Martha Zoller, as well as helping push through a controversial law banning abortions after 20 weeks. But there's also a Democrat running, Gainesville lawyer Jody Cooley.
Although the district—which stretches from the Athens Perimeter north to the state line—is one of the most conservative in the nation, Cooley says he is reaching out to the "sensible center," as he calls it.
"I just really felt like the extreme positions are not the right positions, and people should have the choice of voting for somebody closer to the middle."
Cooley, at times, sounds like an old-school conservative Democrat. On other issues, he's to the left of President Obama. He endorses the Simpson-Bowles plan to reduce the deficit and cut entitlements; favors the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who go to college or join the military; calls for major cuts in defense spending to balance the budget; supports the Affordable Care Act; and wants to bring American troops home from Afghanistan immediately.
Collins spokeswoman Loree Anne Thompson describes the race so far as "civil." Collins, in spite of running far to the right during the GOP primary, has a track record of working with Democrats in Atlanta on issues like reforming the HOPE Scholarship, and he'll do the same in Washington, Thompson says.
"People everywhere are sick of the gridlock and absolutely nothing getting done," she says. "Doug says you can stand firm on your convictions and find common ground and move forward on that."
10th Congressional District
Rep. Paul Broun (R-Athens) turned himself into a national lightning rod yet again when he said that science proves the Earth is 9,000 years old and that evolution and the Big Bang are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." But alas, no one is running against him in the general election. A movement started urging voters to write in Charles Darwin, and Flagpole publisher and editor Pete McCommons ended his tongue-in-cheek campaign to elect "Pete McCommunist" in deference to the late biologist. Brian Russell Brown of Augusta registered as a real write-in candidate. When reached for comment, though, Brown mentioned campaign finance reform and hung up.
Amendment 1 would set up an appointed state board to approve publicly funded charter schools that local school boards don't want. If you missed last week's Flagpole, check flagpole.com for an in-depth story.
Amendment 2 would let the state enter into long-term leases on buildings. Supporters say it will save money in the long run, but do you really trust the folks who put it on the ballot?