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Greg Bluestein

A ‘major’ campaign announcement becomes must-see political theater

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Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington’s “major announcement” turned into one of the most bizarre events of the campaign season. It featured a hand-lettered sign, a few rather confused reporters, snickering Gov. Nathan Deal staffers and a made-for-TV interruption from the governor’s attorney.

In the end, Deal attorney Randy Evans actually spoke longer than Pennington (and that hand-drawn sign challenging Deal to a debate was at his side for part of it.) Here’s how it unfolded.

Pennington, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters and TV camera crews, stood just outside Deal’s second-floor statehouse office to challenge Deal to meet him for a debate or drop out of the race. He said Deal is so “poisoning the well” for state Republicans that Democrat Jason Carter could pull out a victory.

And he invoked the controversial sale of a salvage yard that was co-owned by Deal as reason to question the governor’s ethics. It was later revealed that the firm that bought the business, Texas-based Copart, was locked in a legal dispute with the state over as much as $74 million in back taxes.

“What Watergate was to Richard Nixon is what Copart records are to Nathan Deal,” declared Pennington.

From there, though, the event morphed into a spectacle. One reporter asked the tea party candidate what, exactly, his major announcement was. Pennington said he would leave a formal invitation to Deal to attend the upcoming debates and urged the governor to pack it in if he didn’t.

(We got word today the governor will skip a May 14 Atlanta Press Club debate, and his staff has said he likely won’t participate in other GOP events).

Evans, standing on the sidelines, jumped in to challenge Pennington to unseal federal court records related to a potential bankruptcy of a company he once ran. And he asked the former mayor whether he would release tax returns, which prompted Pennington to eventually agree to disclose five years’ worth.

The attorney then took the podium after reporters exhausted their questions for Pennington. Evans defended an email from Deal chief of staff Chris Riley, who said in that note that he wanted to take out the word “Gainesville” from a press release announcing the Copart sale and replace it with a vaguer mention of metro Atlanta.

Riley was responding to a question from an attorney involved in the Deal who was seeking guidance because it would effect the governor’s office. When pressed by reporters, Evans called it a move of “no consequence.”

But his most interesting retort came when asked why Deal refused to debate Pennington and Superintendent John Barge, another GOP challenger. Said Evans:

“Voters have a ton of information. The only thing that’s important here, is there information, are there issues that are sufficiently distinct that would merit a debate from someone who doesn’t suffer from these challenges. Candidly, there are some folks who are candidates for the sake of being candidates. They just want their name out there.”

 

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