ALBANY, Ga. -- Winfred Dukes says he's learned a lot in his 14 years as a member of the state House of Representatives, but there's one lesson that sticks foremost in his mind.
"I said this in an interview with your newspaper when the Republicans took control of state government," Dukes, the Democratic incumbent seeking re-election to the House District 150 seat, said Thursday. "The state's still going to pave the roads, provide for transportation and educate our children. The only difference is in who pays for it."
For the first time since his initial run for office in 1996, Dukes has drawn opposition in his bid to retain his seat. Republican political newcomer Karen Kemp, the executive director of an Albany sexual assault and children's advocacy center, has forced Dukes back to the campaign trail.
But the Democratic stalwart says he's been invigorated by the challenge.
"I'm very excited to be out campaigning again," Dukes said. "I was a little concerned when I first heard that Karen was running, a little shocked. But I've since realized this is an overwhelming chance to tell my story. I have an opportunity to reintroduce myself to some people in the district and to introduce myself to others."
Kemp is no stranger to Dukes, as the Republican challenger has, in her capacity as executive director of the Lily Pad, sought his help in securing grant funding for the center.
"I like Karen; as a matter of fact she's called on me consistently to talk about legislation and funding possibilities for sexual assault and domestic violence issues," Dukes said. "In my mind, this campaign is not about Karen. It's about who is most qualified and who has a proven record of addressing the needs and delivering for the people of this district.
"Understand, I worked with Karen knowing that she was chair of the (Dougherty County) Republican party. This isn't about Republican or Democrat. As far as I'm concerned, if someone is doing something to help the people of this district, sign me up."
Dukes said he has bittersweet feelings about two particular pieces of legislation he co-sponsored in the House: the A-Plus Education Reform Act of 2000 and the Homeowners Property Tax Relief Grant from that same year. However, he laments the fact that those pieces of legislation have been rendered almost moot under Gov. Sonny Perdue and the current Republican leadership in Atlanta.
"The A-Plus Education Act called for a reduction of class sizes," he said. "For instance, in grades K-3, the legislation made the student/teacher ratio 15-1. But (during Perdue's) first year, that ratio was raised to 18-1. Last year the increase was up to 23-1, and this year there are no limits. The most difficult thing I've gone through the last 6-8 years is watching the (Republican-controlled) state government dismantle public education.
"And with the Homeowners Relief Grant, homeowners just in Dougherty County were saving $6 million-plus a year on their tax bills. Each homeowner got a $308 tax break in Dougherty County, $313 in the city of Albany. Now, that's gone. What our leadership is doing to the state borders on hypocrisy."
Dukes said Georgia voters who stick with the same leadership do so out of "fear, anxiety and amnesia."
"Georgia voters have forgotten that even in difficult times during the 1990s, we were creating 2,000 new jobs in the state every month," he said. "They've forgotten that Georgia was the leading state in the Southeast, one of the fastest-growing east of the Rockies through the 1990s. They've forgotten that we created 235,000 new jobs during the time of the dot-com bubble burst and in the wake of 9-11.
"And here in Albany, I see where the Dougherty County Taxpayers Association has donated to Karen's campaign even though I co-sponsored the largest homeowner property tax relief grant in the history of the state."
Dukes said education remains his priority concern as he prepares to return for a 15th year at the Gold Dome.
"The most crucial issue in the state now is what it has been for a while: educating our children," he said. "We owe our children that; it's the one thing that bonds us as a state; not where we come from, where we live or what we do. Hope and expectation for a better future are what bond us, and we get that through providing our children a quality education."
Dukes said a lack of "competency in governing" is one of the key issues that has marked the past eight years in Georgia.
"The (Republican) leadership in Atlanta tell people they're for reducing taxes, yet they tax the poor and the sick," he said. "They say they're for education, yet they rob our children of their inheritance. They say they're for the elderly, yet they take the food out of old people's mouths.
"Quite candidly, I think this is an issue of competency, of a group that had been on the outside looking in so long they did not know how to govern when they came into power. These people spent so long fighting against the policies that were implemented that when it came their time to put their own policies in place, they didn't know what to do. They literally bankrupted the state and raided the treasury."
Despite his tenure, Dukes said he's taking nothing for granted as the Nov. 2 showdown at the ballot box approaches.
"I'm invigorated; I'm loving this," he said of the campaign. "I love the people of this district and the people of this state, and my commitment runs deep. It's going to take hard work to turn things around in Georgia, but I'm absolutely willing to put in the time.
"As we get our word out to the people in this district, we're not leaving anything to chance. When we get through with this campaign, there won't be a bullet left in the chamber. I guarantee you when we wake up on the morning of Nov. 3, we're not going to look at ourselves and wonder what else we could have done."