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Jim Galloway, Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy

Michael Thurmond wooed for state school superintendent contest

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Dekalb County School Superintendent Michael Thurmond greets parents of the Fernbank Elementary School at a meeting earlier this month. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

The race for the open state superintendent seat is already one of the most intriguing contests in Georgia this year. It could get even more interesting.

Michael Thurmond, the former state labor commissioner, was drafted last year to take over as superintendent of the DeKalb County school system, even as it was poised to lose its accreditation.

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blogThurmond is now being recruited by Democratic leaders to run for the state super job, which will be left vacant by its current occupant, John Barge.

Thurmond told us Tuesday that he’s heard from several Democratic leaders and that he’s “flattered” by the attention but he hasn’t made up his mind yet. He noted that he still has his hands pretty full with his current gig.

That’s not the only calculation complicating his decision. Democratic State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell has been in the running for months, but she hasn’t exactly endeared herself to fellow Democrats with her unabashed support of charter schools.

Were he to run, Thurmond has an impressive resume. The Athens native had a long career in the state House before serving three terms as the labor commissioner. He left in 2010 on a failed mission to challenge Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

He took over DeKalb’s reeling school system in February 2013 as it teetered on the brink of losing accreditation, and six of the nine school board members would soon be ousted (one of them, Nancy Jester, is in the crowded GOP field for the superintendent’s job).

About a year later, a jubilant Thurmond celebrated as DeKalb’s accreditation was upgraded. And Democratic leaders have since been more than eager to heap the credit for the turnaround his way.

***

Should Michael Thurmond enter the Democratic primary, he would be attempting to usurp Alisha Thomas Morgan’s participation in what could become a historic contest — a head-to-head, statewide match-up of two African-American candidates in a general election contest.

On the Republican side, in a large field of candidates, Cobb County businessman Fitz Johnson, a Citadel graduate and former chief executive of a family-owned defense contracting business, has raised the most cash. Healthy portions of Georgia’s business community may be lining up behind him.

Johnson, who is black, received a boost this morning with the withdrawal of Bartow County school board member Matt Shultz from the GOP primary contest. As he exited, Shultz endorsed Johnson:

“Fitz Johnson is highly qualified for this critical role.  We share the same conservative values and goals.  He has the statewide network and financial backing to ensure a strong Republican win this fall against a concerted effort from liberals in Atlanta and Washington.”

***

If you were a teacher who went to the state Capitol on Tuesday to protest changes to your health coverage by the Deal administration, you might be wondering if you have any clout.

Here’s how you know lawmakers were paying attention:

In the Senate, lawmakers were debating S.B. 346 by Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, which would require that the governing board of the Department of Community Health, which oversees health insurance contracting for state employees, include at least one “active participant in the state health benefit plan.”

Three Democratic senators, led by Vincent Fort of Atlanta, then attempted to amend the bill by requiring that future health care coverage be provided by at least two vendors – not a single one, as the Deal administration chose last year.

It was at this particular moment that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is up for re-election this year, decided to take his first break of the year from presiding over the chamber. He handed the gavel to Senate President pro tem David Shafer.

Seconds after the lieutenant governor walked out, Renee Unterman, R-Buford, rose to challenge the appropriateness of the Democratic amendment. Shafer ruled it non-germane. Democrats challenged the ruling, which was upheld, 33-13.

The lieutenant governor returned to the rostrum to preside over the chamber soon afterwards.

This morning, Cagle spokesman Ben Fry insisted that the lieutenant governor’s departure was nothing but a routine break during a long session that lasted until 3:30 p.m. – a chance to refuel with a slice of pizza before a lengthy debate on foster care privatization.

To read anything else into Cagle’s brief absence is “absurd,” he said.

And yet, the episode bore all the characteristics of a classic, “no-fingerprints” moment at the state Capitol.

***

Gov. Nathan Deal gave a rather curt response last week when he was asked at a press conference about his support for House Bill 990, the legislation that would require state lawmakers to approve the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

On Tuesday, he elaborated on why he was willing to support the measure, citing other states that also required their legislative bodies to approve an expansion. Said Deal:

“It is an issue that has huge economic impacts and would seriously affect any budget that the General Assembly would come up with. And I think on that basis since they are responsible for passing a budget and yet have no say so under the current process about something that could tremendously impact what a budget might look like, I think it’s altogether appropriate.”

He added: “And I always have a veto pen if I don’t agree with it.”

***

Last week in Wheeler County, Lower Oconee Community Hospital closed its doors – citing financial difficulties posed by the unintended squeeze on hospitals in states that aren’t expanding Medicaid rolls under the Affordable Care Act.

Several more hospitals in rural Georgia are expected to follow. In the Senate, David Lucas, D-Macon, has pitched S.B. 338 to help replace disappearing hospitals. From Georgia Public Broadcasting:

The bill would encourage the establishment of what he calls “medical stabilization centers” in under-served communities. Lucas says the bill would essentially relax the state’s Certificate of Need, or C.O.N, rules on establishing a rural medical facility…

The bill is getting bipartisan support, but has run into questions about how would these medical centers be funded.

While the bill doesn’t come with any money, Lucas says there are several ways to potentially fund these rural centers, and it might be possible to tap into the federal agriculture agency.

Tapping the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be the alternative to starting yet another debate over Obamacare.

***

In the 10th District Republican race to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens, Barbara Dooley – wife of former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley – has endorsed former state Rep. Donna Sheldon of Dacula. Dooley, as quoted in the press release:

“Donna was a leader in the State House and was known as a woman who could get things done, bring people with different opinions to the table, but never compromise her conservative principles,” Dooley said.  “She is exactly what we need in Washington and I am proud to give her my total support.”

***

A Georgia Court of Appeals panel on Tuesday took up the issue of whether the Atlanta Braves’ argument that the team shouldn’t be subject to suits by fans hit by flying bats or foul balls. From the Fulton County Daily Report:

The Braves’ lawyer, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, said the appeals court should adopt the so-called “baseball rule,” which says teams are immune if they provide enough seats behind home plate shielded by a net to meet demand.

Hearing the case with two colleagues, Judge Michael Boggs wondered why the baseball industry should get its own rule. “The concern being, of course, if you carve out a rule for baseball, if we adopt the baseball rule, next week we’ll be adopting the hockey rule, and the week after that we’ll be adopting another rule,” he said.

Boggs, of course, is under consideration for a federal judgeship. The case involves a 6-year-old girl struck by a foul ball at Turner Field in 2010.

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