ATLANTA — Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue share the title of CEO but are trying to make the case their experiences couldn’t be more different as they campaign for Georgia’s open Senate seat.
Both candidates are political newcomers who see their business backgrounds as key to wooing independent voters in a race that has garnered national attention as Republicans seek control of the Senate. The candidates also see an opportunity in attacking their opponent’s business record as they look to the general election.
Since Perdue emerged from a crowded Republican primary, Nunn has moved quickly to hone her message of collaboration and partnership to draw a distinction between her experience heading up Points of Light, a major volunteer organization founded by former President George H.W. Bush, and Perdue’s time overseeing Fortune 500 companies including Dollar General and Reebok.
“David and I do have different real world experiences,” Nunn said at a recent candidate forum. “I have an experience that has been about lifting people up over the last 26 years, building and growing organizations and getting things done for the people of Georgia in a collaborative way, a proven way of working across differences and party lines.”
Nunn was referring to Perdue’s comments that his experience “competing in the real world” as compared to Nunn’s time “running a philanthropy” would bring more value to the debate in Washington on how to deal with the national debt, grow the economy and create jobs.
He has expanded on that theme in the weeks since he won the Republican nomination, emphasizing his time growing companies. He talks about rebuilding the Reebok brand, adding stores while at Dollar General and overseeing Sara Lee Corp.’s expansion in Asia.
“My issue isn’t so much how she ran that organization,” Perdue said. “It’s just that that leadership does not prepare you, in my mind, to deal with issues we have in a free-enterprise system. I want to focus on why my background is more appropriate to lead in the Senate in regard to bringing economic and free-enterprise solutions to fix the problems that we have with the economy today.”
But Nunn has been forceful in her criticism of Perdue’s stewardship, particularly of Pillowtex Corp., a North Carolina-based textile company. In a TV ad, Nunn accuses Perdue of profiting while workers were left holding the bag.
“He walked away, with his $1.7 million and didn’t care about if we had a dollar in our pockets,” one former Pillowtex worker, Delores Gambrell, says in the ad. “David Perdue looks out for himself.”
Gambrell and the other former Pillowtex workers talk about how Perdue took over as CEO in 2002 and then left eight months later, shortly before the company closed with some 7,650 people losing their jobs across the country. The ad doesn’t mention the company had recently emerged from bankruptcy and was already in a precarious financial situation when Perdue took over.
Perdue has said he discovered an unfunded pension liability shortly after arriving at the company, which prompted investors to pursue a sale and then ultimately close down the company after a buyer failed to emerge. Perdue dismisses the attacks as “politics as usual.”
“Of course they are going to attack me,” Perdue said. “That’s what they do because they have a failed record.”
And while Perdue has yet to launch a direct attack on Nunn over salary increases at Points of Light, the outside group Ending Spending Action Fund already has. In an early TV ad, the PAC blasts Nunn for earning as much as $300,000 for “running a nonprofit that had laid off 90 workers.” The layoffs occurred during a merger of Nunn’s previous organization, HandsOn Network, and Points of Light, and records show her salary was less than her predecessor at Points of Light.
Meanwhile, Nunn recently seized on comments made by Perdue in an effort to portray his CEO experiences as out of touch with regular workers. She points to his support for last year’s Republican-led government shutdown and a remark in which Perdue said people shouldn’t be so concerned with Georgia’s comparatively high unemployment rate and should instead focus on the rate at which jobs are being created.
With roughly two months to go before the Nov. 4 election, voters can expect to see the attacks continue to heat up both by the campaigns and a wave of outside groups that see Georgia as one of about a dozen races that will determine control of the Senate for the last two years of President Barack Obama’s term.
Also on the November ballot is Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford, a paralegal and former Flowery Branch councilwoman.