ATLANTA, Ga. -- Sonny Perdue's legacy was written on two election nights.
In 2002 he entered the history books as Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. This Nov. 2, Georgia voters went to the polls and effectively validated GOP rule, ushering in a state government awash in Republican red.
Through a combination of luck and design, Perdue -- once a Democrat -- found himself riding the crest of a Republican wave that has transformed Georgia into one of the more conservative states in the nation.
Georgia's political shift since the Bonaire businessman took office is breathtaking. Democrats who ruled the state for generations will not a hold single statewide elected office come January and have seen their numbers plummet in the state Legislature.
Alec Poitevint, a former state Republican Party chairman and a leader in Perdue's insurgent 2002 campaign, credits Perdue -- as the party's standard bearer -- with changing the landscape by governing effectively.
"He proved to Georgians that Republicans could be trusted to deliver what they promised," Poitevint said. "Just look at the results from the last election."
But while Perdue's political legacy is assured, when it comes to governing the verdict is less clear.
Perdue's eight-year tenure in the governor's mansion has not been marked by a signature legislative accomplishment, like Zell Miller's HOPE scholarship. He leaves without a deal in the state's long-running three-state dispute over water. And after refusing to place his holdings in a blind trust while serving as the state's chief executive, he has faced ethics questions about business dealings and land purchases he conducted while in office.
But supporters say he has imposed a businessman's sensibility on state government, focusing on customer service -- like shortening wait times at the Department and Drivers Services -- as well as saving money by reshuffling and outsourcing some state operations.
His Commission for a New Georgia implemented management practices which have helped the state win national kudos and have been imitated elsewhere.
"If I could choose my legacy it would be the epithet that he made government work," Perdue said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That's really what I've focused on. It's not some big monument."
Perdue argues that philosophy is in line with what Georgians are looking for from their government.
"They want it to be there when they need it and get out of their lives most of the other times," he said.
Conservatives agree and say they aren't troubled by the lack of a big new program.
"A lot of times legacies are expensive," Kelly McCutchen, head of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.
Critics see it differently. They accuse Perdue of neglecting pressing problems, like the state's struggling schools and clogged highways, while funneling millions of dollars to frivolous programs like Go Fish, designed to draw lucrative bass fishing tournaments to the state.
DuBose Porter, the outgoing House Democratic leader, said Perdue slashed education funding even when times were good, which has forced local governments to hike property taxes to keep schools afloat.
And Porter said by shortchanging the state's university system, the Perdue administration made tuition hikes necessary, which have, in turn, strained the popular HOPE scholarship.
"Georgia is falling behind in education and unfortunately I think that is how history will remember his administration," the veteran Democratic legislator said.
Perdue argues that he was constrained by budget woes throughout much of his tenure. He entered office during the economic turmoil that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He leaves office again slashing spending as the state copes with lingering effects of the recession.
"You don't get to choose the time you get to serve," Perdue explained. "Would I have loved to have been here in, in this office in the Zell Miller days when we were growing eight, nine, ten percent a year? Sure, that's fun."
Still, while Democrats fault Perdue for being tightfisted, some Republicans grumble that his conservative credentials are suspect.
During flush economic times, state spending rose to a record-high $21 billion. And Perdue infuriated some Republican ideologues when, for several years in a row, he vetoed sweeping tax cuts adopted by the GOP-led state Legislature saying they would create uncertainty in the state's already rocky revenue picture.
Perdue said he has no regrets.
"My fiduciary responsibility as the steward of this state was to maintain its fiscal integrity, its AAA bond rating and to leave it prepared to grow for the future and I believe we've done that," he said.
Perdue departs without a resolution to the water rights feud with neighboring Florida and Alabama, missing what some thought was a perfect opportunity -- three outgoing governors looking to make a deal.
"This has been an issue where emotions and perceptions have ruled rather than facts," Perdue allowed.
Still, he said that he believes his administration has set the stage for incoming Gov. Nathan Deal.
"Some have to prepare and others have to come in and ink the deal," he said.
On education, Perdue will likely be remembered for winning millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top dollars for Georgia. He says the effort is part of his overall philosophy of accountability.
"Georgia since the mid '80s had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in education and some of the results that were seeing were not consistent with the investment we were putting in," he said.
Test scores and graduation rates have posted modest improvements under Perdue's watch but educators say they worry that deep funding cuts to schools will roll back any gains.
Perdue's own personal dealings have faced scrutiny. He was criticized for purchasing Florida property in 2004 from a wealthy GOP contributor he named to a state economic development board. His lawyer -- state Rep. Larry O'Neal -- also pushed through a sweeping tax bill in 2005 that ultimately saved the governor about $100,000 in taxes on that out-of-state transaction.
Perdue signed the tax bill into law but said he did not know he stood to benefit from it.
This year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Perdue's middle Georgia grain and trucking businesses met with officials at the state Ports Authority looking at business prospects there. Perdue attended one of the meetings, records show.
Perdue dismisses such criticism as "silly" and said if he had it to do over again he still would not place his holdings in a blind trust, as other governors before him have done.
Perdue's future has been the source of much speculation. It's been rumored he could take over as chancellor of the university system or perhaps as president of University of Georgia, his alma mater. He said he has no plans to do either. And while he won't completely rule out another run for elected office he said he also doesn't see another campaign in his future.
He said he and his wife Mary plan to return to Bonaire.
"I think it's vert important for those of us in public life to be able to walk back into the lives that we left unchanged," he said.
"I wanted to come out and serve and I want to go on back home."