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Candidates ' soap boxes make few suds

ATLANTA --- The 2010 elections may seem so far off that nothing is happening, but it's not for lack of effort on the part of the candidates for various state offices.

Most are crisscrossing the state speaking to small, partisan gatherings or civic clubs while trying to raise both their profiles and their treasury balances. At this stage, their ethics have become as much an issue as anything. Several are trying to seize the moral high ground by releasing personal financial data.

First, Gary Horlacher, a Peachtree City Democrat running for secretary of state, released five years of tax returns and even took a polygraph to swear he never cheated on them, nor on his wife.

Then Eric Johnson, a Savannah Republican running for governor, released his.

Mr. Johnson garnered a little more media attention, prompting Mr. Horlacher's prodding of reporters.

"Eric is not the first statewide candidate to disclose his return in this cycle. At my kickoff announcement, I displayed all of my tax returns (state and federal) for the last 10 years," he said.

Next came Roy Barnes, the former Democratic governor seeking to regain his former post. Mr. Barnes released returns for the past eight years. During other campaigns the Marietta native had released tax information that now goes back 25 years.

"I applaud Eric's choice to make his tax returns available to the press; however, I urge him to take the next step and fully disclose all of his financial information to the public," Mr. Barnes said in a news release. "It's something I've done for over two decades, and I strongly encourage all of the candidates in the race for governor, both Republican and Democrat, to do the same. I further challenge all candidates to pledge to place their assets in a blind trust as I did as governor."

Mr. Horlacher was Mr. Barnes' original press secretary, so he was obviously taking notes. The polygraph was an original flourish.

The other Democratic candidates for governor all told reporters they would disclose their tax returns next year.

The other major GOP gubernatorial candidates said they might. One of them, Nathan Deal, of Gainesville, regularly discloses income ranges as required by federal law of members of Congress, but his spokesman said he wouldn't release actual tax returns.

Mr. Deal has already been in the media spotlight for financial dealings with the state Department of Revenue. A business he co-owns was at risk of losing its no-bid contract because the revenue commissioner wanted to make changes.

The congressman met with state officials to discuss the proposed changes, and when the story was published, he said he was doing nothing wrong. Then, on Thursday, he announced that his company, Gainesville Salvage Disposal, was withdrawing from its state contract. He issued a statement that he was angered that rivals were making hay of the issue and that he was pulling out of the contract because he and his partner worried consumers would be harmed by the way it would now be administered by the state.

"It's time for my opponents to put down their video cameras and stop taking my words out of context and join me in standing up for the taxpayers of Georgia," he said.

Before personal finances bubbled up as an issue, Mr. Barnes and fellow Democratic gubernatorial contender David Poythress were sparring over loyalty to the party. Mr. Poythress has lobbed several attacks at Mr. Barnes, the frontrunner in early polls. Mr. Poythress' attacks aimed to blame Mr. Barnes for current problems, like Atlanta's water shortage, transportation and education, by accusing him of inaction during his four years as governor.

The real spice in the exchange, though, came when Mr. Poythress latched onto a Barnes quote lamenting that he would rather dispense with both the Democratic and Republican parties. Mr. Barnes, after all, was once a Young Republican before running for the Legislature. Expressions of tepid enthusiasm for your party aren't likely to endear the stalwarts who vote in primaries.

Most of the candidates are gaining little notice. With a sputtering economic recovery, an 8-year-old war, a national debate on health care and municipal elections in less than a month, media outlets aren't devoting any real energy to next year's campaigns.

Being relegated to sideshow status only makes the candidates try harder to win attention. Sometimes that pressure can result in some really interesting proposals.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.

Web posted on Thursday, October 15, 2009

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