Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sonny's 3rd Annual Fish Fry, Perry GA

Fish fry draws 2,000 for GOP cause
By Matt Barnwell

PERRY - It may have the governor's name on it, but Sonny's Fish Fry is far from a one-man show: It's blossomed into a Republican pep rally.

Saturday, the three-year-old annual event attracted nearly every down ticket candidate who is embroiled in a statewide runoff election, plus many more who were just looking to keep their face in front of a crowd.

It doesn't take long to figure out the appeal to politicians: Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign claimed 2,000 people sat down for a lunch of catfish, slaw and hushpuppies. The crowd filled half of the Miller-Murphy-Howard Building's convention hall space at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter.

"This is ground zero for Republican politics," said Gary Black, who paused for a moment between handshakes to declare his reason for choosing to spend his final days of campaigning at a Perry fish fry. Black on Tuesday faces state Sen. Brian Kemp in an election runoff for their party's agricultural commissioner nomination.

While other local politicos and candidates for secretary of state perused the audience, GOP VIPs lined up for a spot on stage.

Former Congressman Mac Collins, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., for the 8th Congressional District and frequently ties himself to Perdue, led the Pledge of Allegiance.
"That helps," Collins said beforehand, as he worked the lobby. "People know I'm here. Be seen in a campaign, and be heard as many times as you can."

Moments later, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson introduced U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who, after quickly plugging President Bush, finally introduced the governor.

And before all that, state Sen. Casey Cagle, last month's victor in a bitterly fought campaign for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor against behind-the-scenes GOP guru Ralph Reed, got to bless the food.

"I'd like to give you a big rally speech," he told the crowd apologetically, "but unfortunately they asked me to say the prayer.
By the time Perdue climbed the stage, the crowd was thoroughly warmed to their incumbent governor, who will face Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor in November. As in previous stump speeches, the governor touted his administration's ability to turn a 2003 state deficit of $640 million into a surplus he said has climbed to $580 million.

"That's the way you want your state to run," Perdue said.

He also promised leadership, resources and respect for educators, a voting bloc that is said to have been key to his election four years ago. This weekend's tax-free shopping period ends a four-day window of time teachers were given to buy classroom supplies with $10 million worth of $100 gift cards from the state.

But Democrats continue to batter the governor for his election-year spending on education. Although Perdue has promised $1 billion in new funding for the classroom, Democrats say he has continuously cut money for education.

"Sonny's tricks and illusions can't hide one huge fact: Teachers are paying for supplies out of their own pockets because Governor Perdue cut our schools by over $1.25 billion dollars," Emil Runge, state Democratic party spokesman, said in a statement released last week. "Not even David Copperfield can make that fact disappear."

Perdue denies the accusation and says per-student funding is up by $400. His campaign aides say Democrats are using faulty arithmetic to add together austerity cuts, and are confident that they have teachers' support.

"I think the evidence that the other side is out of touch with Georgians is to make a negative issue out of this gift card," Perdue said.