Gov. Nathan Deal wasn't at the Atlanta Press Club debate tonight, but his two GOP rivals peppered his empty chair with attacks. The sharpest focused on his knack of putting a niche magazine's ranking at the center of his campaign.
Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington said Deal's administration "bribed" Site Selection Magazine to rank Georgia as the top place in the nation to do business. And Superintendent John Barge accused the governor of using the accolade to paper over other systemic problems facing Georgia.
The two were riffing on a story that ran last week that quoted economic development analysts questioning Deal's frequent trumpeting of the publication's ranking. It noted that state economic development officials have a longstanding financial relationship with the publication, not unlike similar ties between the state and other media outlets.
Pennington said the magazine's ranking was "basically meaningless" because of its tiny footprint. It has a circulation of less than 50,000 and only a few hundred paid subscribers.
"It’s amazing what can happen when you award them $134,000 in state tax money to basically buy that ranking," he said, adding: "That magazine is basically one for foreign capitalists to locate a plant here. And they’re going to locate a plant here if you give them enough land, free tax breaks and cheap labor."
Barge hit a different note, saying that voters were tired of hearing the governor harp on the ratings. Said Barge:
"We’ve all heard ad nauseum that Georgia is the number one state in the nation to do business. But there are other issues in this campaign. Education, campaign, ethics, poverty, healthcare. At what expense did this ranking come? Our children?"
The magazine's editor, Adam Bruns, has said the publication’s rankings have nothing to do with marketing relationships or advertising spending with the publication. He said the magazine used a complicated formula that includes a survey of corporate consultants and economic metrics such as state tax burdens to put Georgia at the top.
And although Deal wasn't there to defend himself - he has declined to attend any debates ahead of Tuesday's primary vote - here's what he said when recently asked about criticisms of the magazine's ranking:
“You would think they would want to be proud of that fact. It’s really hard to understand how people could not think that’s a good thing.”