It doesn’t get much nastier than this in Fulton County politics.
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) finds himself under a withering political assault from upstart Graham Balch, a 36-year-old biology teacher at Grady High School, a former Peace Corps volunteer, a Barack Obama supporter and a man who has the backing of some true heavyweights in the Atlanta business community.
A renegade in the state Legislature who has never shied away from confrontation, Fort now finds himself in a fierce, under-the-radar firefight to save the District 39 Senate job he has held for 14 years.
It just might be the biggest battle in Georgia this year for a legislative seat held by an incumbent. But there have been no debates or even joint appearances by Fort and Balch. This fight to the finish is being played out in direct-mail broadsides and so-called robo attacks (recorded telephone calls).
Senate District 39 runs from East Point in the south up through Midtown and into Buckhead. It includes portions of southwest Atlanta. It’s a diverse district with a majority black (62 percent) population. It contains some of Atlanta’s richest and poorest neighborhoods.
And it’s always been a sure win for Democrats.
That will be the case again this election cycle. Fort and Balch are the only candidates running. And they have both signed up as Democrats.
But there’s a twist, at least according to Fort. The veteran politician and college history professor contends Balch is not much of a Democrat at all.
In a mailer sent to District 39 residents, and in subsequent media interviews, Fort argued that Balch is little more than a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. That’s a politically incendiary charge in District 39.
One Fort mailer has a photo of Balch on the front. Below are photos of three elephants doing tricks with GOP stickers on their bodies. The headline reads: "How Republican is Graham Balch? The headline on the other side reads: "Graham Balch. Too Republican to stand up for us."
It’s a point Fort has continued to hammer home to supporters and reporters.
"He’s a Republican in Democratic clothing," Fort said in an interview with PolitiFact Georgia.
Rubbish, Balch said. He accused Fort of twisting the facts to smear him.
"I am 100 percent a Democrat, and I’m very proud of that." Balch said.
But is Fort correct? Or is the veteran lawmaker and political firebrand simply playing the party card to discredit the only real challenger he has faced in more than a decade?
Fort stands by his mailer.
"He worked for a Republican congressman and he voted in the Republican primary," Fort said. "That makes him a Republican."
Balch agreed with Fort that he did intern for a Republican congressman while working on his thesis about the GOP’s impact on environmental policy. He interned for then U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate Republican from New York known for his environmental activism.
And Balch said he did vote in the 2000 and 2004 GOP primaries in Pennsylvania, where he lived at the time. But he did so, Balch said, to cast a write-in protest vote against George W. Bush.
Georgia voters, unlike those in Pennsylvania, do not register by political party.
"I have done some protest votes against Bush because I think he stole the 2000 election (both in winning the Republican nomination and the general election) with dirty politics, and because I consider him the worst president in U.S. history," Balch said. "That protest vote is why I am listed that way in Pennsylvania."
A review of voting records in Pennsylvania shows Balch is listed as "Republican" and "inactive."
There is no independent way to determine why Balch voted in the Pennsylvania GOP primary. So PolitiFact Georgia sought more recent records.
We went to VoteBuilder, which touts itself as a "partnership between the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party of Georgia." It’s an effort to identify and target people who consistently vote for Democrats. VoteBuilder gives Balch an 83 percent rating as a Democrat. It places him in its "strong Democrats" category.
Balch is also an elected member of the Fulton County Democratic Party, according to its Web site. He holds Seat 2 in House District 59.
Fort is unimpressed.
"A corpse could get elected to that position," Fort said. "It’s a social club."
A check of financial contribution records also shows Balch has given money to Georgia Win List, a group that backs female Democratic candidates. And he specifically contributed to the campaign of state Rep. Margaret Kaiser, a Democrat from Atlanta. There was no indication he has ever contributed to Republican candidates.
The Fort-Balch race has taken on some of the overtones of last year’s slugfest between Kasim Reed and Mary Norwood for mayor of Atlanta. That race was nonpartisan, but Reed’s camp accused Norwood of being too cozy with Republicans. Reed narrowly won the hard-fought contest.
"He’s saying to himself, ‘Hey, this worked for Kasim Reed against Mary Norwood, so let’s try it again,’ " Balch said in a telephone interview with PolitiFact Georgia.
Reed has endorsed Fort and held a fund-raiser for him, spokeswoman Sonji Dade said. Fort was a staunch supporter of Reed in the mayoral race.
Fort has repeatedly said that Balch’s contributors are Republican. But a check of those records indicates they come from both political camps, many of them with strong ties to the business community.
Fort accuses the business community of trying to run him out of office because of his aggressive stand against the privatization of Grady Memorial Hospital. He was a frequent vocal critic of the move. And Fort was even hauled away in handcuffs after he disrupted one Grady board meeting.
Contributors to Balch’s campaign include Metro Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams, former Cousins Properties CEO Tom Bell and Lisa Borders, a former president of the Atlanta City Council who is now president of the Grady Foundation.
"The good ol’ boys are out to get me," Fort said during a recent telephone interview with PolitiFact Georgia.
Fort would have been correct if he had said Balch is strongly backed by Atlanta’s business community.
But the state senator appears to be on shaky ground accusing his opponent of being a Republican.
We give Fort a Barely True on this one.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.