For the first time in more than a decade, state Sen. Vincent Fort, one of Atlanta's most progressive and pugnacious state lawmakers, is facing a brawl to keep his seat.
And the seven-term Democratic lawmaker's biggest threat isn't a tea party knuckle-dragger or a Republican poster boy. He's a first-time political hopeful — and fellow Democrat — on whom the downtown business establishment has helped shower more than $100,000 in contributions in hopes of unseating the Gold Dome's resident firebrand.
With less than two weeks to go until the July 20 Democratic primary, Fort and his challenger, 36-year-old high school biology teacher Graham Balch, have ramped up heated campaigns in what observers say could be one of the state's more competitive races.
For voters, the decision will essentially come down to whether they want a battle-tested Democrat who's challenged the status quo or a new breed of progressive who promises to be a consensus-builder.
With no Republican or independents on the November ballot, whoever emerges victorious in the primary will represent District 39, a diverse Democratic stronghold that stretches from Brookhaven in the north to East Point in the south and includes parts of conservative Buckhead, youthful Midtown and predominantly African-American southwest Atlanta.
In 2002, Fort partnered with then-Gov. Roy Barnes to pass one of the country's toughest anti-predatory lending laws — dismantled by Republicans one year later. Over the years, the bespectacled college history professor has stood alongside protestors rallying for such causes as arts funding, the anti-war movement and mortgage reform — sometimes even getting arrested for his efforts.
But Fort earned the ire of Atlanta's business elite when he fought their successful 2007 effort to privatize Grady Memorial Hospital, the state's largest public hospital. In one widely publicized confrontation, Fort was hauled away in handcuffs by police after loudly disrupting a Grady board meeting.
"The 14 years I've been in the Legislature, I've been a change agent," Fort says. "I've been someone who's not afraid to stand up to the good ole boys for the constituents I serve."
But he's not just an agitator, he adds. Fort, who benefits from his incumbent status and endorsements from numerous groups including Georgia Equality, points to what he says is a record of bringing funding to the district. Most notably: nearly $33 million in the last four years for Atlanta Metropolitan College and Atlanta Technical College — $10 million of which he says he eked out of this year's historically lean budget.
Balch, a Wharton grad and Peace Corps vet who left a job as a business consultant to teach biology at Grady High School, says he can work with Republicans to make incremental steps toward making Georgia a more progressive — and ultimately Democrat-controlled — state.
"We need Democrats who can reach out and regain the votes the Democratic Party has lost in the state if we want to do the things" — gay marriage, state funding for transit — "to make Georgia a just state," Balch, who's running on an education and jobs platform, says. "We'll never have that with Fort as a senator."
Since beginning his campaign last year, Balch has picked up considerable support from across the district. But the names that stand out on Balch's contribution disclosure forms are those in the business community who wrangled with Fort in the effort to privatize Grady Memorial Hospital: Metro Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams; former Atlanta City Council President and current Grady Foundation President Lisa Borders; former Cousins Properties CEO Tom Bell; and former Georgia-Pacific CEO Pete Correll.
With weeks until polls close, both candidates have begun blasting each other in quotes to the press and glossy mailers. Balch has knocked Fort's combative style, his missed Senate votes and his inclusion on a list of lawmakers in 2009 who failed to pay their taxes.
"I'm not happy our state senator is raising our taxes while not paying his own," says Balch.
Fort, who said he's since settled his debts, has fired back with, among other charges, a tactic that worked well for Kasim Reed during his mayoral race against Mary Norwood and Borders: Questioning whether Balch, who, records show, has voted in two Republican primaries and once worked for an eco-minded GOP congressman, is really a Democrat.
"Graham Balch can't buy this election," says Fort, who hasn't had an opponent since 1998. "He can't hide his Republican-in-Democrat clothing."
With no debates planned between now and Election Day, the war of words will have to play out in mailers, meet-and-greets and robocalls. Both candidates say they're campaigning nonstop and dialing for dollars until July 20.
Both candidates were expected to file new financial disclosures this week. Fort, while mum on the exact amount he's raised, smiled and said he's "very happy" with the results.
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