published Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Anti-tax Mayor David Pennington of Dalton, Ga., to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal

Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington has announced he will challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in the GOP primary.
Dalton, Ga., Mayor David Pennington has announced he will challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in the GOP primary.
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Can Dalton Mayor David Pennington win the Georgia governor's race?

As mayor of Dalton, Ga., David Pennington made his mark as a proponent of lower taxes.

He championed the reduction of the county's sales tax, which temporarily dropped to 5 percent in 2012 -- while surrounding counties were at 7 percent.

Pennington hit the road and traveled around Georgia to campaign against the T-SPLOST, a July 2012 ballot initiative to fund transportation that failed in nine of 12 districts in the state.

Now, Pennington is going to take his anti-tax message statewide, when he champions an end to Georgia's income tax as part of a campaign to unseat Nathan Deal in the Republican primary for the 2014 governor's race.

"The state income tax is the most onerous tax for small business, because we have to pay it on our personal income tax returns," Pennington told the Dalton Daily Citizen. "Small businesses produce 65 percent of the net new jobs in America and right now we aren't producing enough new jobs in Georgia to even handle the population growth."

The gubernatorial contest is likely to be overshadowed by a fierce fight among Republicans seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

However, Tuesday's announcement by Pennington that he will challenge Deal means the governor will have to defend his record and spend money before being able to focus on the general election, according to The Associated Press.

Through a spokesman, Pennington declined an interview and pointed to a campaign website that describes him as a job-creating businessman and principled conservative with a degree in economics from the University of Georgia. On the website, Pennington calls for tax reform to "make taxes simpler, fairer and smaller."

"Our leadership is failing us," he said in a statement issued by his campaign. "We need ethical leadership that will focus on job creation, not scoring political points. We need a proven, job-creating businessman to take the reins."

'Believes in his opinions'

Dalton is the seat of Whitfield County, but County Commission Chairman Mike Babb isn't picking sides in the upcoming battle between Pennington and Deal. He knows both men, he said, because Pennington is Dalton's mayor and "Nathan Deal was our congressman for nearly 20 years and has been good to Northwest Georgia."

"We're kind of between a rock and hard place," Babb said. "I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines of this one, watching what's going on."

Babb said Pennington's entrance in the race should make for interesting debates.

"He believes in his opinions, and he doesn't mind sharing them," Babb said.

By most accounts, Pennington will face an uphill battle against Deal, who recently reported raising $613,000 in campaign contributions since the first of the year and has roughly $1.1 million in cash for his re-election bid. Deal, who defeated a crowded field of Republican candidates in the 2010 governor's race, is expected to campaign on his conservative stewardship of state finances and job growth.

"This is a numbers game. The governor has 70 percent approval ratings from the Republican primary electorate that will decide the nominee," said Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson. "Gov. Deal has reduced the size of state government, maintained our Triple-A bond rating and cut taxes."

In his announcement, Pennington conceded little ground on fiscal issues and said the state's economic performance has not improved under Deal's watch and instead trails the nation. Pennington touted his work as mayor of Dalton to reduce property taxes and license fees.

Pennington said he "has a disdain for those who would hide behind a party label to raise taxes or increase wasteful government spending" and said he's also dedicated to improving the quality of life for Georgians. He said that during his time as mayor, nearly $1 million has been invested in historic preservation and city recreation space has increased.

Robinson said the governor welcomed a debate on economic policies, saying the state's revenues have increased annually since Deal took office and unemployment has dropped two percentage points.

"We're making real progress in Georgia, and Gov. Deal is going to offer a vision for the next four years," Robinson said. "He will run on his record. He's proud of his record. We're also going to have an agenda for his next term."

So far, no major Democrat has announced a bid for governor. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said earlier this year that the focus for Democrats should be on the U.S. Senate race, and he praised Deal for doing a "good job as governor."

The two have worked together on a number of economic development projects, including Porsche's new North American headquarters being built in Atlanta.

Staff writer Tim Omarzu contributed to this story.

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