By Shannon McCaffrey
The Associated Press
ATLANTA —; The Democratic nomination slugfest in the governor’s race escalated on Monday as Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox sparred over misleading ads and libel charges.
Cox predicted “a three-week street fight” leading up to the July 18 primary.
“I wish it were not so. But I’m from the country, and I know how to fight,” she said after addressing a forum for government officials in Savannah. Taylor skipped the event.
The latest flareup involves remarks by Cox’s press secretary, Peter Jackson, over the weekend in which he told a reporter that Taylor supporter Benjamin Cawthon, a former city councilman from Blakely, “was in jail in Early County last week.”
“He’s expected to be indicted on lying to authorities and obstruction of justice,” Jackson told the Savannah Morning News.
Cawthon has been in radio ads for Taylor, calling into question Cox’s support for the state lottery that funds the popular HOPE scholarships. Cox has called the ads —; and claims by the Taylor camp that she did not support the lottery —; false.
The Taylor campaign has seized upon the attack on Cawthon’s credibility, calling for Jackson to be fired. They say his comments are untrue and potentially libelous. Robert Brown, the Democratic leader in the Senate and a Taylor backer, accused the Cox campaign of a “Willie Horton style of political slander.”
But Cox stood her ground on Monday. She said she had no plans to fire Jackson, who believed he was talking to the reporter off the record and simply had encouraged the reporter “to check into something.”
“And in fact, the person at issue had been arrested and was charged with something, and the charges were later dropped,” Cox told reporters.
Early County Sheriff Jimmie Murkerson said Monday that Cawthon was taken into custody in October 2005 following a car accident involving his son. Murkerson, who has endorsed Cox, said Cawthon lied to police about whether he had been driving his son’s car in the crash. He was held for about three hours and then released after he told police the truth. He was never charged with a crime, Murkerson said.
Murkerson said he was approached last week by a mutual friend of his and Cox’s and asked about Cawthon. He declined to say who that person was.
Cawthon said the dispute with police was a misunderstanding and that he later received an apology.
“They never charged me with anything,” he said.
The Cox camp has been battling an ad campaign by Taylor, questioning her support for the HOPE scholarship. A Taylor TV ad cites a 1993 report in the weekly Miller County Liberal in which Cox said she had not voted for the lottery. The author of that article has said the Taylor campaign took the statement out of context. Cox has said that she has consistently supported the lottery and meant only that she had not been in the state Legislature when it was enacted.
“When an opponent starts lying about you, you have to respond,” she said Monday.
The Taylor camp has continued to stand by the ad.
Cawthon said Monday he is considering a libel lawsuit against the Cox campaign.
Bill Lee, a media law professor at the University of Georgia, said he will face “an uphill battle” if he goes to court. By doing ads for the Taylor campaign he has made himself a public figure, which means the bar is set very high to prove libel, Lee said.
“A jury is likely to look at this as the give and take of the political process,” Lee said.