Do Georgia voters really pay any attention to ethics issues?
We are about to find that out, as Nathan Deal and Roy Barnes engage in their war of words over which candidate for governor should reveal what information about themselves.
I think we would all agree that the people we elect should observe the highest standards of ethical conduct. We don't want to see anyone unfairly enriching himself (or herself) at the expense of the taxpaying public. Voters certainly should take note of how politicians behave when they hold public office.
Even so, I've never been able to figure out if ethics is really the defining issue in an important statewide race like the campaign for governor.
During the Republican primary campaign, Karen Handel focused on ethics as the solution to the state's problems caused by all the "good ol' boys" in the political establishment. She produced numerous TV spots and Internet videos that criticized her male opponents for their "iffy ethics."
That approach seemed to work at first, as Handel became the frontrunner in the GOP primary. After she was pushed into the runoff with Deal, Handel kept bringing up the congressional ethics investigation of Deal and newspaper reports that a grand jury might be looking at her opponent's business transactions with the state.
In the end, all that talk about ethics didn't work very well for Handel; she lost a close runoff election to Deal.
Democratic nominee Roy Barnes was the next candidate to take up the ethics issue, running attack ads that made charges against Deal similar to the accusations made by Handel.
In one of the Barnes commercials, the narrator intones: "We can't afford a governor who might spend months in court trying to save himself rather than working every day to save Georgia."
Those TV commercials seem to have had an impact on the Deal campaign. One indication of Deal's discomfort was the fact that his attorney, Randy Evans, started granting interviews to print and TV reporters in which he pushed back on the notion that a federal grand jury would be looking at the business transactions between state government and a Gainesville auto salvage firm that Deal co-owns.
"There is no grand jury," Evans told a print reporter from Savannah.
"There is zero risk that we will have an October surprise or a September surprise," Evans said in another interview with a TV newsman.
Deal also made public partial information about his income tax returns for the period dating back to 1981. Although he released the cover sheets for the joint returns filed by him and his wife, he did not disclose the tax schedules that would have provided details about his business dealings.
"This release of documents, combined with 17 years of financial disclosure reports, provide Georgia voters with a transparent look at Nathan Deal's income, his assets and his liabilities," Deal contended.
"We're very disappointed that Congressman Deal has chosen to give voters only a partial look into what he's been hiding," said a Barnes campaign spokesman, Emil Runge.
Deal used the partial release of his tax returns as an opportunity to take his own shots at Barnes' activities as a trial lawyer.
"In the past eight years, how many cases has he or his firm tried in front of judges whom he appointed to the bench?" Deal asked. "How much money did Barnes or his firm earn in those cases?"
And with that, the battle lines are set for the fall campaign. Which candidate will blink first? Will Deal be forced to reveal more information about that auto salvage company and the money it received from the state? Will Barnes be pressured to tell the voters more about all those clients he's been defending in court and the fees they have been paying him?
Of course, the cynical observer would note that by spending so much time arguing about ethics and tax returns, there won't be much time to talk about other issues that might be just as important. For example: How are we going to pay for state services during a deep recession? How are we going to keep our schools open so that kids can get an education?
Let's hope the candidates will talk about those issues as well.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.