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Isakson challenger Barksdale casts himself as an outsider

Jim Barksdale has maintained a curiously quiet persona since joining the race to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson more than a month ago. A virtual unknown in Georgia’s political world, the Democratic Party’s handpicked favorite to topple Isakson has said nary a word to the media and kept a low profile across the state.

Barksdale broke his public silence in an interview Wednesday in his Buckhead office, pledging to run as an outsider who will seize on familiar themes of economic distress in Georgia and stifling gridlock in Washington to make his case.

The 63-year-old investment manager pointed to the more than $1 million he’s already pumped into his campaign as evidence he’ll have the resources he needs to compete against Isakson, a popular incumbent sitting on a mountain of cash as he seeks a third term in office.

Barksdale repeatedly ducked questions on most of his policy stances, saying that he’s not ready for a “deep dive” ahead of an upcoming listening tour throughout the state. But he said he would build his case around business-friendly policies to boost Georgia’s economy and tap into his party’s frustration over GOP opposition to President Barack Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s going to be a competitive race,” he said. “Have no doubt.”

Barksdale emerged as the party’s preferred candidate after a range of higher-profile possibilities, from preachers to politicians, publicly flirted with a run and then backed out of a tussle with Isakson. A formidable opponent, the 71-year-old Isakson enjoys high name recognition, popularity across the aisle — and nearly $6 million in his campaign stash.

Barksdale said he, too, would not have joined the race if a better-known Democrat had entered. But after consulting with party leaders, including 2014 gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, he said he couldn’t pass up the chance to run in an unpredictable presidential election cycle.

“All of a sudden, it made sense. I’m a business guy, like the Perdue model,” he said, invoking U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the former Fortune 500 chief executive who stunned Georgia’s GOP establishment in 2014 by winning the party’s nod. “I have resources. I’ve paid attention. It made sense to them, it made sense to me.”

“People think there is no chance,” he added. “But the odds are much better than people like to think.”

Throughout the interview, Barksdale talked of lending his business acumen and humanitarian streak to his political decisions. The head of a Buckhead equity firm, he oversees about two dozen employees who handle more than 13,000 clients.

“I’ve got a great life. It’s a very privileged life. I couldn’t have imagined that things would have worked out so well for me,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to enjoy all that I have when I look at the world and I see so much that is not right and see people that are hurting.”

He attributes his slow rollout to being a political newcomer while also juggling part-time work at his firm. He’s hired a new campaign manager and recruited Carter’s political director, and he plans to ramp up his campaign ahead of the May 24 primary. He faces two little-known challengers in that contest.

“No one can buy this seat, it belongs to the people. And the people of the state have to decide,” he said. “It’s not going to be this businessman sitting in Atlanta trying to buy the race.”

The policy stances he staked in the interview had echoes of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s agenda. He supports hiking the minimum wage, though he didn’t peg a specific number. He favors expanding Medicaid, which Isakson and state Republicans said is too costly in the long run, because he said not expanding the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled has forced a slate of rural hospitals in Georgia to close.

Of the “religious liberty” debate that shook Georgia this year, Barksdale said he would oppose “anything that leads to discrimination.” He wants to channel his party’s frustration that Obama is being “denied the legitimate opportunity” to appoint a Supreme Court justice. And he said he’d back initiatives to make it easier for students to borrow money at lower interest rates.

He’s running at an uncertain time for Democrats. On one hand, party leaders are optimistic the possibility of Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee can make the state competitive in November. On the other, putting a balding white man at the top of Georgia’s ticket may not invigorate the base of mostly black voters the party depends upon.

“It’s a valid question,” Barksdale said. “And the question is how attentive and how much are you listening to those voices. How authentic are you about it? I’ve been in touch with that community for some time, and I feel I’m very aware and attentive. And mostly, I’m very concerned.”

Analysts heavily favor Isakson to prevail. A giant of the Georgia Republican Party, he has built a reliably conservative record while remaining unapologetic about working with the left. He’s also weathered the anti-establishment forces that have roiled other races, avoiding any high-profile primary challenge this year even after announcing he suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Still, Barksdale sees his bid for office as anything but quixotic.

“This is a chance for Georgia voters to respond and say, ‘Do we think these policies are working for all of us or not?’ I don’t think they are,” he said. “I can’t just manufacture a win. Georgians have to want this. They have to engage themselves in wanting a change in policies.”

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