"I'm a warrior in an ancient battle," he says. "This campaign is straight out of the Bhagavad-Gita -- the classic battle between materialism and illusion against truth and light."
Gates' lanky frame and expressive features seem suited for a warrior. And, after his attempt to sit in on a debate last week with his two front-running opponents, Sen. Zell Miller and former Sen. Mack Mattingly, ended with Gates being roughed up and thrown in jail in Albany, Gates has found a new meaning in the term "rough-and-tumble politics."
All told, seven contenders are vying for the Senate seat that was, until his death in July, occupied by Republican Paul Coverdell. Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Miller, a Democrat, to hold the seat until a special, non-partisan election that coincides with the Nov. 7 general election.
All the candidates appeared at a forum earlier this month, but only Miller and Mattingly -- with an estimated 80 percent of the vote between them, according to recent polls -- were invited to Albany. Gates says he contacted the Republican to ask whether he'd help Gates get on the debate panel.
"He said he'd get me in, so I spent three hours driving down there," recalls Gates. "I was hoping to get be in the debate, not to make trouble."
When he arrived, both Mattingly and Miller were hospitable enough, but neither would agree to intercede on his behalf with WALB-TV station manager Jim Wilcox.
He took his seat in the audience and noticed Wilcox pointing him out to a police officer and station staffers. "When they introduced the candidates. I stood up, said 'I'm Jeff Gates, I'm running for the U.S. Senate, and I respectfully request to be included in these proceedings.' Then, they hit me."
The officer and at least one other man grabbed him and started wrestling him out the studio doors. "That's when I started my little chant: 'This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy sounds like!'" he says, laughing. "I wasn't resisting, just making a lot of noise."
As he was shoved through two sets of doors, Gates says he received a large bruise on his hip. Afterward, at Wilcox's insistence, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. He sat in jail for about five hours until he paid $182 and was released.
Miller spokesman Rick Dent says Gates' arrest looked even worse from his vantage. "I heard Gates start shouting, then somebody moved on him, and somebody jumped over some seats and grabbed him. Then they dragged him out, and I heard this big boom, like the whole package had fallen down."
Mattingly press secretary Bill Wood confirms that Gates asked the candidate to "put him on our guest list." "We told him there was no guest list, but that it was an open studio and he was welcome to come." Wood says Mattingly has repeatedly expressed his willingness to include Gates and other candidates in debates but that the station's time constraints made including all seven impracticable. Station manager Wilcox has been out of his office and unavailable for comment.
Beyond its interest as a political vignette, the fracas focuses attention on a subtext of the Senate race. The presence of candidates like Gates and Libertarian Paul McGregor may well force Miller -- once assumed a safe bet for decisive victory -- into a runoff. In addition to what Mattingly aides describe as public resentment over Miller's appointment to fill a Republican seat, Miller is being forced to spend many of his few remaining campaign days in Washington, where budget battles drag on while rivals work the voters back home.
"We're looking at maybe only having 10 days to campaign," frets Dent.
Recent polls show Miller hovering at 50 percent and Mattingly running roughly 30 percent, so even a tepid show of support for the other candidates could send the election to a runoff.
In that climate, Gates stresses, Miller and Mattingly -- to whom he derisively refers as Mell & Zac -- certainly don't want the spotlight cast on an articulate, experienced long shot.
"They don't want me on that stage," he says scornfully. "They want to do their same old shuck-and-jive bullshit. I know more about the Senate and foreign affairs than either one of 'em, and they know it."
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