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Republican Black wins agriculture primary

The Associated Press

ATLANTA -- The past president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council won the Republican primary on Tuesday for state agriculture commissioner, a post held by a Democrat for more than 40 years, and responsible for regulating and promoting a $7 billion industry.

No Republican secured an outright majority in the GOP primaries for insurance commissioner and the Public Service Commission, meaning the races will be decided in an Aug. 10 run-off election. Meanwhile, the Democratic primary for labor commissioner was too close to call early Wednesday.

Unofficial returns showed Republican Gary Black, a beef farmer, winning roughly three-quarters of the primary vote for agriculture commissioner in a race with Darwin Carter, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. The winner will face former State Sen. J.B. Powell, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.

The primary for agriculture commissioner was remarkable since it was the first race in four decades not to include the incumbent, 81-year-old Democrat Tommy Irvin, who will step down in January. Irvin is among the longest-serving elected officials in the country and remained a Democrat even as his party lost its dominance across the South to the Republicans.

Black has called for better training for the state's food inspectors following a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people, sickened hundreds more and caused major economic damage to the state's peanut industry. "It's on the front of every consumer's mind, and it's very important to farmers, too," Black said in a phone interview from his Commerce farm after his victory. "Consumers have to have confidence in the marketplace."

Food safety issues encouraged Waterloo peanut farmer Don Register to vote for Black.

"He'll make sure food inspectors will do the job," Register said of Black, "making sure they won't get in bed with the companies."

In the Republican primary for state insurance commissioner, Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Ralph Hudgens and attorney Maria Sheffield advanced to a run-off election after they both took about 20 percent of the vote in a crowded nine-way race. Democrat Mary Squires ran unopposed in her party's primary for the seat.

The race attracted a large number of Republican candidates after the incumbent, John Oxendine, decided to run for governor. It's the first time the seat's been open since Oxendine was first elected in 1994.

Opposition to President Barack Obama's sweeping health-care overhaul was a major issue in the GOP primary. Oxendine refused earlier this year to set up a state insurance pool for high-risk Georgians who have been uninsured for at least six months as part of that federal overhaul. The GOP candidates said they would fight the new law.

Another runoff will decide the Republican primary for a seat on the Public Service Commission after conservative activist Tim Echols won 35 percent of the vote compared to 28 percent for his nearest competitor, State Sen. John Douglas. The winner will face Democrat Keith Moffett, who ran unopposed in the primary.

While the race for Public Service Commission attracted little attention, its members have a big say in setting the utility bills paid by millions of residents and will oversee the construction costs on what could be the first groundbreaking on a nuclear power plant in a generation.

In the labor commissioner's primary, Democrat Terry Coleman was running neck-and-neck against Darryl Hicks in a head-on race too close to declare a winner. Each candidate was hovering around 50 percent of the vote early Wednesday with 98 percent of precincts reporting.

Coleman was trying for a political comeback after his short tenure as speaker of the Georgia House. Hicks has campaigned on his 20 years of business experience working for the parent company of Atlanta Gas Light.

Republican State Rep. Mark Butler won the GOP primary for labor commissioner with roughly 71 percent of the vote against fellow State Rep. Melvin Everson.

Democrats have held the labor commissioner's office since it was created in 1938. The current commissioner, Michael Thurmond, served for a dozen years before deciding, this year, to run for U.S. Senate.