Jobs, schools, water are top concerns for Georgia voters

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Education remains important, but In a new survey of Georgia voters conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, jobs and the economy joined schools as the most important issues on voters' minds.

A new concern, the guarantee of adequate supplies of water, has also risen to the top of Georgia's worry list. But transportation and traffic, which topped the agenda of Gov. Roy Barnes in 1998, lies near the bottom of a list of voters' top 10 anxieties.

It's the difference between quality-of-life issues and life itself, say Republicans and Democrats eager to help voters sort their feelings out by Nov. 5 -- when they will elect a governor, U.S. senator and a host of other officials.

"Job security is muscular, something that touches every fiber in your body," said state Democratic Chairman Calvin Smyre. "Traffic is something you can get over once you get to your job. You can't get over traffic if you're headed to the unemployment office."

Republicans are no less eager to discuss employment, given how hard the state's airline industry and the rest of its economy have been hit since Sept. 11, 2001.

"That's one of the things we're picking up on," said Rusty Paul, former chairman of the state Republican Party and now an adviser to Sonny Perdue, the GOP candidate for governor. "Atlanta's buffered by its size, but in some places in South Georgia, one plant closes and you've lost your economy."

The poll, based on telephone interviews with 500 likely Georgia voters, was conducted from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1. It has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points. The ranking of issues was based on the number of respondents identifying each one as "very important."

Lea Aguillon, 49, of East Point is the office manager of a church and participated in the AJC survey. She has a 9-year-old daughter, but no 401(k) or health insurance. Her husband has been laid off from his landscaping job, and she'd like to find one with more benefits.

There's no doubt where the tension is in her life. "As I look at the fear of everyone, and the fear of war, and the fear of not having jobs, and the layoffs, and I look at my friends not having jobs, I think there's just a lot of uncertainty," she said.

And yet, voters in the poll expressed a curious mixture of concern and optimism. That could have a bearing on political contests in November, particularly in the governor's race, where a Republican challenger might be expected to benefit from economic woes during a Democratic administration.

In the survey, 60 percent of voters expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the national economy. And yet in the same poll, nearly half of voters -- 49 percent -- say things in Georgia "are generally going in the right direction."

Emory University political scientist Merle Black, a consultant on the AJC poll, said Republican gubernatorial candidate Perdue could find himself in a bit of a squeeze between two optimistic incumbents: Roy Barnes and George Bush.

Bush has been relentlessly upbeat, and it shows in the poll. When it comes to the economy, core Republicans are the most optimistic. And yet Perdue must convince Georgia voters that the situation is not so good here.

"Sonny's running as the candidate of 'We're on the wrong track.' This is a real contradiction. That's a negative attitude that Bush is trying to avoid," Black said.

Barnes, meanwhile, has spent $10 million -- mostly on TV commercials -- touting his efforts to please voters on most of those top issues: jobs, education and taxes.

"A lot of these issues are things Republicans would try to use, but Barnes has pre-empted them," Black said.

Perdue, meanwhile, has had money woes of his own, preventing him from matching Barnes' advertising.

That's a situation that will change within days, said Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan. "We have solutions and ideas for these things. The main element is the television presence -- which is coming," he said.

Without a doubt, voter concerns shift with geography, age and philosophy. The poll shows that:

Attracting and keeping good jobs registers most with black voters and with rural Georgians. Among voters who say jobs are "very important," Barnes outpolls Perdue 52 percent to 40 percent.

Good public schools is an issue particularly dear to black voters and voters between the ages of 18 and 29, who are among the most likely to have small, school-age children. But the issue rings true with other voters, as well.

Jan Bourassa, 59, is a retired Henry County resident who participated in the poll. "It's hard for me to believe children are getting as far as high school and cannot read," she said. "I just can't comprehend that. I think we need to get back to basics, and I think parents are a lot to blame, too. You can't just sit a child down in front of a television."

Having adequate supplies of water is a concern in every corner of the state. Until this year, politicians haven't talked about it much. But it became a major issue in the 7th Congressional District primary between John Linder and Bob Barr. And the ongoing drought, now termed "catastrophic" in some parts of the state, is undoubtedly feeding anxieties.

The issue of effective management of the state budget plays best among adults over the age of 30. It's of particular concerns among suburban and rural residents. "I don't have a big concern, I don't feel like we're being cheated or anything, but it is something that's important to watch," said Bourassa, the Henry County resident.

Tougher ethics laws for government officials is an issue that resonates particularly in rural areas and with voters who come to Georgia from outside the South.

"Most of them use their office to make money or consider it a permanent job. The best thing is to expose these people," said Austin Daniel, 76, a south Fulton County resident.

In 1999, 2000 and 2001 AJC polls, metro Atlanta residents named traffic their No. 1 concern. But in the current poll, transportation and traffic ranks no higher in metro Atlanta than it does with other Georgia voters. It's far behind jobs, schools and water.