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DVM Newsmakers: Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue


Georgia governor finds similarities in diagnosing disease and solving public policy problems.

ATLANTA—Politics and veterinary medicine have a lot in common, according to Georgia's Gov. Sonny Perdue, DVM. Just like medicine, civics problems require a differential diagnoses and treatment plan.

If true, this governing doctor is into the biggest case of his life.

Running a state is no small business. Georgia's annual budget is about $16.5 billion and the state's population now tops 8.6 million people. Two years into his first term, Perdue fought his way through an economic recession while working with a balanced budget requirement. He pushed quality for the state's educational system, which accounts for about the half of the state's budget, while simultaneously nixing pay increases for state employees and teachers to stymie large-scale layoffs in 2003. Economic expansion is the backdrop to his administration.

Perdue granted DVM Newsmagazine an exclusive interview in the historic Governor's Suite in Georgia's Capitol Office to talk about politics, Georgia's most recent economic growth initiatives, and his career as politician and veterinarian.

"Every issue in government requires a diagnosis," Perdue says. "My veterinary training causes me to look critically and think critically about possible causes and possible solutions. It may not be an internal medicine issue; it could be an internal government issue.

"The investigative and analytical approach as a trained veterinarian to analyze what the solutions are works in government as well as veterinary medicine."

Ranking as the first republican to win the gubernatorial seat since reconstruction in 1872, this expressive veterinarian portends a southern charisma and thoughtful understanding of state issues. He presents as a statesman who adamantly believes that listening is a critical success attribute. Perdue says his administration is focused on building the economic base of Georgia by simultaneously cutting taxes and throwing a lot of support to education.

The 58-year-old governor admits the challenges in running a state can be as diverse as the opinions in the legislature.

"The toughest part I think is enduring some of the snippy partisanship that gets in and impugns your motives when you believe you are trying to do the right thing. Mischaracterization of efforts regarding a partisan political effort is probably one of the most challenging parts of the job."

Perdue is the only veterinarian in the country to serve as governor. He was swept into power in November 2002 by toppling democratic favorite Roy E. Barnes, sealing his place in Georgia history. During the past few years — the blue state has turned red — the once democratic stronghold has become a republican majority in the house for the first time in more than 130 years.

Small business relief

Perdue's agenda was spelled out in election promises to ease taxes while operating a financially sound state government under a balanced-budget amendment. In the last two months, more campaign promises are materializing, including a small-business tax cut and a Legislature-backed $1 billion in tax cuts for large corporations during the next 10 years.

"Sometimes we don't realize medical providers — physicians, veterinarians, dentists and others — are small business people, too. We put them in the category of medical providers, and yet we don't think of them as small business owners who contribute to the economy and who have the same challenges of living under regulation as every other small business. It is a vital part of our economy here in Georgia, and we had given a lot of tax breaks to large businesses for locating here. This was a segment of our economic capacity that we had ignored for a while. And we recommended tax relief for some of our small businesses to help grow our young entrepreneurs and medical professionals and other small businesses."

If the former Air Force captain leaves a legacy, it's to "make it better for the next generation".

"It is an awesome responsibility and an awesome stewardship. I'd simply like to leave this state better than I found it," he says.

"My goal is to finish doing what we have told people we are going to do: that is strive to produce a more educated Georgia, a healthier Georgia, a growing Georgia and a safe Georgia. The best compliment I could ever receive is after I leave office and Georgia is acclaimed as the best-managed, best-governed state in the nation."

Perdue adds: "People are our most important asset in the state, and how we prepare them for a life of economic prosperity is a great legacy."

Medicine's impact

Veterinary medicine helped Perdue in his political quest.

And he is leveraging his status as a doctor. In mid-March, he was slated to perform a neuter on a dog to highlight the need for pet sterilization of animals in collaboration with an educational campaign with the Humane Society of the United States to address responsible animal ownership.

"One thing that I find in the complex delivery of healthcare these days, we have lost a lot in physician-patient relationships. But a medical provider I have found who has been endeared to their clients is the veterinarian. Most everyone loves their veterinarian. I think people have a fond affection for their veterinarian for the most part and are very trusting of people who take care of animals.

"I've had people come up and tell me that they didn't know me, but they voted for me because I was a veterinarian. It's a great profession, and I have always been proud to call myself a veterinarian."

During the years, Perdue has maintained his license even after serving in the state Senate for more than a decade.

As a young veterinarian, he practiced with mentor Dr. Jim Jackson of Quail Corners Animal Hospital in Raleigh, N.C.

"He taught me a lot about life, about people and meeting their pet's medical needs and meeting their emotional needs at the same time."

Perdue says there was only one problem:

"It wasn't home. I could never get that red clay out from between my toes."

In 1976, Perdue and his family returned to Georgia. He started an agribusiness specializing in grain. His political career began when he served on a Houston County Planning and Zoning Board. While he had no political ambitions at the time, he laughs, "I think I got too close to the pool and someone pushed me in."

This stint on the zoning board taught him a lot about tough politics, especially when balancing opinions on the public good versus personal property rights. "It caused me to listen and not prejudge issues."

Perdue says his political career was not premeditated or calculated — it just happened. While serving on a zoning board, a Senate seat opened up unexpectedly. He was approached to run for office and initially declined. Around the same time period, he and his family had a vacation set for Williamsburg, Va. Timing is everything.

"We got to look at the origins of our country and the citizens and legislators who would leave their homes to do their public duty. I think I was inspired by that, and it is a proper calling for small business people and citizens to serve in a public position and go back to run their lives."

He ran for the state Senate in 1991. After four years, he was selected as majority leader and, in 1997, was elected president pro tempore.

The rest is Georgia history.

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