By RAY HENRY
Republican candidates won a clean sweep Tuesday in races to select a successor to Georgia's longest-serving agriculture commissioner, as well as contests for the departments of labor and insurance and a utility commission.
The losses in the races for agriculture and labor commissioner stung Democrats especially hard since both posts had been strongholds even though the party lost its state-wide grip on power in recent years. Each Republican won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Unofficial returns showed Republican candidate Gary Black winning roughly two-thirds of the vote against Democrat J.B. Powell in the race to succeed Agriculture Commission Tommy Irvin, a self-described "Yellow Dog Democrat," who was first appointed to the post in 1969 and has held it ever since. Forty-eight percent of precincts were reporting.
Irvin, one of the longest-serving state-wide officials in the country, did not run for re-election because of age and ill health.
A number of open commissioner seats set off competitive races this year.
GOP candidate Mark Butler defeated Democrat Darryl Hicks by winning 64 percent of the vote in the race for labor commissioner with 48 percent of precincts reporting. He's the first Republican elected to that office since it was created in 1938, finally ending a long-running Democratic monopoly.
Republican Ralph Hudgens won 62 percent of the vote against Democrat Mary Squires in the race to become the state's next insurance commissioner with 48 percent of precincts reporting. Meanwhile, Republican Tim Echols prevailed over Democrat Keith Moffett by winning 63 percent of the vote in the race for the state's Public Service Commission with 48 percent of precincts reporting.
Food safety was a key issue in the race for agriculture commissioner.
Black, a 52-year-old past president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, pledged to secure advanced training for the state's food inspectors. Powell, a 48-year-old former state senator, said he would create a 24-hour hot line and web site where consumers could report suspected food-borne illnesses.
This year's election also marked the first open race for insurance commissioner in years. The seat opened when Republican incumbent John Oxendine, who won office in 1994, decided not to seek re-election to launch a bid for governor, that failed.
Hudgens, a 67-year-old state senator, promised to oppose President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul and attract more insurance companies to Georgia. Squires, a 52-year-old former state lawmaker, said the next commissioner needs to put an equal emphasis on keeping the regulatory market for insurers and also protecting consumers.
The labor commissioner seat was also open after Michael Thurmond decided to run for U.S. Senate. Hicks, a 47-year-old Democrat, spent more than 20 years working for Atlanta Gas Light, including as a lobbyist. During the campaign, Hicks said he wants to use state money to improve a network of vocational schools that would train unemployed workers.
Butler, a 40-year-old Republican, said the Labor Department needs to be more mindful of business needs and focus on improving work-force skills to head off job losses.
The seat on the Public Service Commission became open when Bobby Baker decided to step down. Baker was viewed as the most pro-consumer member of the Public Service Commission, which regulates electric and gas utilities and other public service providers.
Besides cracking down on illegal movers, which the commission regulates, Echols, 50, said he would work to provide better incentives to boost the state's supply of renewable energy.
Moffett, 39, works as director of internal affairs for the mayor of Macon. During the campaign, Moffett supported more investments in renewable energy and said helping consumers reduce power usage could cut power plant emissions.