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Two candidates have stepped forward to run for the Georgia state Senate District 53 seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Mullis, and another is weighing his options.

Mullis surprised many when he announced Monday he wasn't seeking re-election to the seat he's held for 22 years. In a written statement, Mullis said he made the decision after recovering from Achilles tendon surgery and watching his children step into the next phases of their lives. He said he'll be spending more time with friends and family when his term ends.

So far, the only candidates who have qualified are Republicans Colton Moore and Steven Henry. Candidates have until noon Friday to qualify to run for the position that represents several counties in Northwest Georgia. The window to qualify opened Monday.

As a candidate for state Senate, Moore said he wants to bring principle back to the seat — because he said he thinks Mullis has operated as a transactional elected official.

"Northwest Georgia has a unique constituency, one that is truly conservative, one that truly believes in liberty. Unfortunately, that has not been reflected in the last 20 years," Moore said.

When asked about issues he wants to solve if elected, he first responded voter integrity. He also thinks Georgia subsidies for moviemaking need to be eliminated. J.C. Bradbury, a professor at Kennesaw State University, did a study on the issue that Moore said shows the film credit program is a waste of taxpayer money. Moore also said he wants to prevent transgender women from competing in sports as females.

"I was looking forward to challenging him [Mullis], but I'm grateful I don't have to deal with his nonsense. And I'm looking forward to a great campaign," Moore said.

For work, Moore said he's an auctioneer who sells heavy equipment and cattle. He also works as a heavy equipment operator and truck driver. Moore was born in Dade County and served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2019 to 2021, representing District 1.

He lost a 2020 Republican primary challenge against Mullis.

Mullis did not respond to a request for comment on his decision to not seek re-election.

"Jeff Mullis has been a good senator and a good friend of North Georgia for 22 years, that's a void that's not easily filled," said Henry, a county commissioner for five years in Catoosa County who is also running for the state Senate seat. "Truthfully, it's hard to be effective on a county level if we don't have representation at the capitol. Everything they do affects us."

Henry said he thinks he's the only candidate with the necessary experience, pointing to the fact that Catoosa County has grown its population — unlike most Northwest Georgia counties — while lowering taxes over the five years he's been on the commission. And the growth happened during the pandemic and economic downturn, Henry said.

Though he thinks vaccines should be a choice, not a mandate, Henry said he was part of a three-county coordinated effort that vaccinated 55,000 people. He said voters should know that he's a conservative Christian, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life, and believes in election integrity, including showing identification before voting.

Henry said he hasn't secured any endorsements but was on the phone all day Tuesday and thinks several sheriffs will step up to support him. He said he thinks he'll end up with Mullis' endorsement but wants to respect his choice and the fact that the senator is busy with work in the General Assembly.

At one time, Northwest Georgia was forgotten at the Capitol, Henry said, and he doesn't want that to happen again.

"We're gonna miss him [Mullis], but I'm gonna do everything I can to fill them shoes," he said.

Todd Noblitt is chair of the Walker County Republican Party. He also ran against Mullis in 2020, receiving about 10% of the vote in the primary held in the summer of 2020. He said the pandemic severely limited his ability to campaign.

Neither the county Republican Party nor he had advance notice of Mullis' decision not to run, Noblitt said.

"I'm putting feelers out to see if it's the right time or not to run," Noblitt said, adding that the chances are 50-50 that he will. His motivation to challenge Mullis in 2020 was because he believes the state and nation is better off electing citizen legislators rather than career politicians.

Many admire Mullis for his ability to get things done, like bringing state grant money to the region for, as a recent example, high-speed internet and sewer expansion, Noblitt said. But as a Republican who believes in limited government, he said he believes long-serving officials can have undue influence on the process — citing Mullis' role as the head of the Northwest Georgia Joint Development Authority, a body he thinks lacks proper oversight.

But at this point, Noblitt has to acknowledge the long list of wins Mullis got for Georgians and the region. He likened Mullis to Peyton Manning, one of the National Football League's most celebrated quarterbacks who won two Super Bowls over his 18-season career: "He went out on his own terms, and he went out on top," Noblitt said.

David Boyle is the chair of the Walker County Democratic Party and said he's known Mullis for many years and worked with him on historic preservation. Mullis is a good, caring person, Boyle said he believes, but thinks he's championed some extreme positions to satisfy the radical element of the Republican Party.

"It's just been wild," Boyle said, speaking about the bills brought by Georgia Republican leadership. "A tendency to do anything to make voting more difficult, appeals to so-called parental rights in terms of limiting what schools can teach, further complicating issues relating to women's health care "

Boyle said Walker County Democrats are hosting a Northwest Georgia Kindness and Civility rally at the Walker County Civic Center in Rock Spring, Georgia, on March 26. It will feature speakers, music and homemade deserts.

Boyle said he thinks there's going to be a shift in thinking among voters in the 53rd District, mainly driven by the youth, and he thinks a Democrat will step up to run for the seat vacated by Mullis.

"It would have been nice to know earlier, but that's part of the political game," Boyle said.

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