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Most Hall GOP leaders cool to nonpartisan elections
Proposed legislation would allow candidates to run without party affiliation
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Hall County seems to like the elephant in the room.

A proposed state law to allow nonpartisan elections on the county level hasn't piqued the interest of Hall's Republican elected officials.

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, pre-filed the bill this week. If his fellow legislators like the idea, county officers could lobby their local delegation to get rid of party politics in local elections.

State law, as is, does not allow for nonpartisan elections for countywide offices.

The only seven counties in Georgia with nonpartisan elections are consolidated governments in which the county and the city are one government entity.

Peake wrote the bill at the urging of local Bibb County officials, he said. His bill already has the support of a county government lobbying group, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, and the Georgia Sheriff's Association.

"In local elections, people really don't care whether the person's black or white, Republican or Democrat," Peake said. "They want to vote for the best candidate for the position."

He argues that partisan politics has a place on a statewide and a national level but not on the local level.

"When it comes to county commissioners, a pothole is a pothole whether you're Republican or Democrat," he said.

But few Hall County officials feel the same way.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, sits on the same side of the aisle with Peake in the statehouse.

Still, he doesn't think he'll support Peake's efforts.

Rogers is not a fan of nonpartisanship. If Peake's bill made all elections nonpartisan, including statewide ones, Rogers might reconsider his support, he said.

"If we're going to make a few of them nonpartisan, make all of them nonpartisan," he said.

One issue Peake's bill seeks to address is ballot access. Those not affiliated with Georgia's two largest parties have a difficult time getting their names on the ballot in partisan elections.

He said people have told him they are not able to run in an election and win in certain areas without putting the right letter next to their names.

"I think this equals a playing field so that local governments can elect the best people," Peake said.

Rogers said he thinks partisan elections bring out more challengers than nonpartisan elections, which he said seem to protect the incumbent.

"I know a lot of times, people want to know where you stand, whether you're conservative, moderate or liberal," Rogers said. "I think that kind of brings it out in people. I think voters in the election cycle are more tuned to Republican or Democratic or Libertarian types."

Craig Lutz, a member of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, understands the issue of ballot access. But he said he thinks Peake's bill is the wrong solution.

"If the issues is people don't want to run on the brand or under a brand, then we need to work on ballot access for somebody other than "the big two ... perhaps that's the compromise," he said.

Lutz argued for partisan elections in Flowery Branch when he was a councilman there. Most cities in Georgia have nonpartisan elections for their governing boards.

"I find the party structure adds an additional layer of accountability to the public servant. ... I feel like you owe the party accountability," he said. "If I run as a Republican, I need to act as a Republican. I have always been concerned about nonpartisan elections, because basically, you don't know what the person is. You lose that additional level of accountability."

Hall County's Republican Party also isn't keen on the idea.

"We need to know who is conservative and who is not," said Ken Cochran, acting president of the Hall GOP.

On Hall County's commission, each of the five commissioners bear the mark of the Republican Party. But there are myriad differences of opinion.

Commissioner Ashley Bell, who switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in January, likes the idea of Peake's bill. He said nonpartisan county elections could take "a little bit of the politics" out of local races.

"The city (of Gainesville) is doing just fine," Bell said. "...You don't have to have an ‘R' by your name to want to raise taxes or not raise taxes."

County Board Chairman Tom Oliver said he wouldn't mind a nonpartisan election process. Oliver, a Republican, proposed a hike in county property tax rates earlier this year in an effort to save funds for county employee benefit packages and to keep county parks open.

"Does it really make that big of a difference? Aren't we all fairly conservative?" Oliver asked. "One thing about it: you wouldn't have to change parties, would you?"

The real impetus for Peake's bill was races for tax commissioner, sheriff and coroner.

"Their positions (don't) matter whether they're Republican or Democrat," Peake said. "With a coroner, they want to know that this is an individual that's going to handle death with dignity and respect."

And with a sheriff's race, voters want to know how a candidate is "going to enforce the law."

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic, a member of the sheriff's association that supports the bill, isn't that big a fan, however.

Cronic, a Republican, said that partisan politics don't really play a role in how sheriffs do their jobs. Though Cronic thinks sheriffs, "by nature," are conservative people, he does not think party affiliation affects the way sheriffs operate, he said.

And while he sees the merits of Peake's proposed bill, a lot of Cronic's core supporters are Republicans.

"Being a Republican just reflects who I am," he said. "I'm a conservative. I'm a Christian conservative."

Commissioner Billy Powell said he isn't opposed to Peake's bill.

"You know, giving the choice to local elected officials to decide is probably a good idea," Powell said.

But personally, Powell doesn't think nonpartisan politics has a place in Hall County.

Like some of his counterparts, Powell said party affiliation gives voters an idea of a candidate's values.

"I think in these difficult economic times, when it comes to making the hard decisions on the budget, I'd like to know where my elected officials' hearts are."

And if Hall County doesn't want to go the way of the nonpartisan election, Peake is perfectly content with their opinions — just as long as legislators think like Powell and vote to give other counties a chance to have their opinions.

"That's the beauty of this bill," Peake said. "...Those delegations can make that choice on their own."