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Lieutenant governor hopefuls tout outsider status

After Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, more candidates are finding value in their outsider status — and not just on the right.

See: Georgia’s race for lieutenant governor and the candidacies of Republican Geoff Duncan and Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico. The two are running in their respective primaries as business-minded professionals with either little or no history in politics — once a liability now forged into real currency in the race to replace Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has had the job for more than a decade.

Amico, who was raised in rural Missouri but now runs national logistics company Jack Cooper and has a personal net worth of $12.5 million, rolled through Gainesville in March. In her speech to the Hall County Democratic Party, her choice of opening line was not about her business acumen or her politics — or even her name.

“I’m a first-time candidate for office,” she said, to welling applause. “I’m Sarah Riggs Amico.”

Geoff Duncan, meanwhile, campaigned in Gainesville on Tuesday. In an interview with The Times, the former Cumming state representative played down his time in public office (though did talk up his record at various points) in favor of his business background and family life.

Duncan got his start in business with his wife, Brooke, when they started a Forsyth marketing company. They eventually sold to a larger company, and Duncan was most recently the CEO of a Nashville health care startup before launching his bid for lieutenant governor.

“Nobody in Georgia other than my inner circle, my wife and kids, knew my name,” Duncan said. “We started 12 months ago, and 10 years ago a guy like me couldn’t have ran and been taken seriously, but fast forward 12 months: Hundreds of campaign speeches, thousands of volunteers and we’ve raised over $800,000.”

As of March, Duncan had raised $788,000 but has topped $800,000 in the intervening months, and he isn’t the only one raising serious money in the race: Amico had raised $711,000 as of the March reporting period. 

Former state senator Richard Jeffares Jr., who represented District 17 south of Atlanta covering portions of Stockbridge, Covington and all of Locust Grove, had raised more than $820,000 by March. Jeffares started his first term in the Senate in 2010 and resigned in 2017 to run for lieutenant governor. He owns J&T Environmental in Locust Grove.

And just as both Amico and Duncan touted their everyman bona fides — Amico grew up in a poor household struggling to avoid bankruptcy that took risks on business that paid off, while Duncan noted his children attend public school (in Forsyth, which has some of the best schools in the state) — they both advocated for putting policy over politics.

“I am a straight down the line politics and policy nerd and have been since I was probably 12 or 13 years old, but I always looked at it as an academic interest or a hobby,” Amico told Hall County Democrats. “I certainly never envisioned at this point in my life I would be standing here in front of you running to be your next lieutenant governor.”

Duncan is making an outright pitch for “policy over politics,” noting that as a member of the House for five years he voted against the majority on tax increases, most especially House Bill 170, the fuel tax bill of 2015.

Both see value in running as practical minds from the private sector against the long public service record Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who won his current state senate seat in 2002 and is the best-known candidate in the race. Shafer is also the best funded, having raised more than $1.5 million as of March.

“Most of the polls we’re seeing have us tied or ahead,” Duncan said, “and it’s because of a couple of big issues. One, I’m not a career politician. … Before I tell them my name sometimes I just lead with, ‘I’m not a career politician.’ Half the room cheers.”

He also said it’s because he voted against a billion dollars in tax increases, largely contained in HB 170.

While the polls fluctuate, the Shafer camp has taken some notice of Duncan. At the top of the hits for a Google search of “Geoff Duncan Georgia” yields an ad from the Shafer campaign saying, “Geoff Duncan Abandoned Georgia | David Shafer Fights for Us,” that reroutes to the Shafer campaign site.

Amico’s private sector experience is vast: The trucking executive has an impressive success story based on her family’s rural grit and business sense. On her own, Amico has been a turnaround specialist who has worked in talent and publishing agencies before taking a chairmanship position at Jack Cooper. She now lives in Marietta.

She’s also hired serious people for her run, tapping social media veterans and other staffers from both the Obama and Clinton campaigns to help with her run.

But as a candidate, Amico is more Obama and less Clinton: She had an authentic touch with the Hall County Democrats at the Gainesville Civic Center in March, pulling applause, laughs and drawing in the audience, and she was up front with the people who showed up.

“I’d also love to spend as much time as you guys have available for Q-and-A,” Amico said. “The great thing about not being somebody who comes from the political world is: I will actually answer your questions.”

And she did, taking question after question for an evening until the crowd ran out, and she stayed to talk with attendees after the event until she and her husband, Andrea, were the last ones to leave the meeting. 

Amico presented herself as a moderate, though she’s staunchly supportive of unions, Medicaid expansion and the social welfare net.

But her brightest contrast to her party came on the culture war raging between left and right, though she did take a shot at President Donald Trump.

“Our system is so well designed that it can survive the idiocy of any one individual, including the president, but here’s what it can’t withstand: apathy. Our enemy is not Donald Trump, it’s not the Republicans — it’s a lot of fun to poke them in the eye every now and then, but they’re not the enemy. Our enemy is a system that has told us in this current day, our politics telling us, we have less in common with our neighbor than we do the (things that) divide us.”

The Georgia primary election is set for May 22. The general is set for November.

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