Monday, October 20, 2008


Incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss was visibly worried. The Associated Press story which had run in that morning's paper had made light of the fact that he and his Democratic opponent, former Georgia Department of Human Resources Commissioner Jim Martin, were Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia in the mid 1960's. The story made it clear that while young Jim Martin was involved in political affairs at a tender age ("he was always off running to one meeting or another" a classmate recalled), young Saxby was sampling the night life of downtown Athens. As his old roommate, Clark Fain, put it, "Saxby and I, we liked the Miss Modern Venus contest." The Senator, who looks like a Hollywood central casting concept of a United States Senator from the deep South, with his ruddy face, silver hair, and trim physique, wryly observed to a local columnist after the WALB-TV debate in Albany: "that's what happens when your old friends are asked about your college days."

The October 20th debate, to be televised in Albany, Columbus, Savannah, and on C-Span, was not as cordial as one might have expected of old fraternity brothers. The candidates, including perennial Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley, an earnest and passionate Atlanta attorney/CPA specializing in employee benefits and tax law who originally hales from Cleveland, Ohio, exchanged some barbed comments that evidenced the stress that accrues after weeks of debates on the campaign trail:

Jim Martin: "I'm standing between two people who don't believe in government."

Saxby Chambliss: "Mr. Buckley, now I understand why you didn't sell very many copies of your book."

Jim Martin: "Saxby, the people don't believe you."

The last comment came after Mr. Chambliss made the rather incredible assertion that Barack Obama had said in a press handout that he would protect Florida's water resources in the Chattahoochee River Valley at the expense of Alabama and Georgia. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in an October 17th story with a link to the Obama press release-- a release which Chambliss had waved in Martin's direction-- Chambliss' assertion was untrue. In fact, the Obama campaign's rather bland announcement had said nothing about favoring any State, calling "... on the Governors of Florida, Georgia and Alabama to ... reach equitable water sharing solutions... [that] .... would provide the scientific basis for reaching an equitable solution; ... that protects the drinking water of Atlanta’s citizens and provides sustainable flows for productive agriculture in South Georgia and Alabama, and for the fish and wildlife that inhabit Florida’s Northwest region and the industries they support."

The Iraq War, which earlier in the year would have been a central issue, took a back seat as most of the debate focused on the economy, who caused the mess, and how to fix it. When asked how to cut spending, Mr. Chambliss touted his "fair tax" proposal that would eliminate all income taxes- and the IRS- and replace them with a national sales tax in the 23% range. Mr. Buckley responded by noting that under Mr. Chambliss' plan, retirees receiving $27,000 a year in Social Security benefits who currently pay no federal income tax would pay over $10,000 a year in federal taxes.

Mr. Martin accused Senator Chambliss of being "joined at the hip" with President Bush and his policies through the last six years, and said if he disagreed with a President Obama, he would speak out: "I'm not a rubber stamp for anybody." Mr. Chambliss retorted that he had "violently disagreed" with President Bush on numerous "major issues," but tellingly could not provide a single example. Mr. Chambliss had supported President Bush in voting for the Iraq War, for deregulation of banks and savings and loans (while he served in the House of Representatives), for over $5 trillion in deficit spending, and to immunize government officials who wrongfully imprisoned and spied upon American citizens.

Mr. Martin, who remarkably has closed the gap to two points on the incumbent Republican in a State which gave Republican Senator Johnny Isakson over 60 percent of the vote four years ago, appeared confident and relaxed both during and after the debate. Afterwards an observer drew a smile from Martin when he teased him that Martin reminded him of the old Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Aykroyd playing an omniscient President Carter who was so smart that he literally knew the answer to everything. One thing is certain: Georgia's next Senator will be a lawyer, as all three have been practicing attorneys. And whoever he is, he will most likely be serving in a Democratic controlled Senate under a Democratic President, as the Democrats are expected to substantially increase their margin in the next Congress, while Senator Obama has a comfortable lead in the polls.

Jim Finkelstein, an Albany attorney, has known Allen Buckley since they met during the 2004 Senate campaign, Saxby Chambliss since Chambliss' days practicing law in Moultrie before he went to Congress in 1994, and Jim Martin since both worked for Georgia Legal Services more than 30 years ago. Mr. Finkelstein caught up with his old friends at the October 20th taping of the Senate debate at WALB-TV's studios in Albany.


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