Sonny Perdue served two terms as the governor of Georgia, from 2003 to 2011. He was the first Republican chosen by Georgians to occupy the governor’s mansion since the Reconstruction-era election of Rufus Bullock in 1868.
Background and Education
George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue III was born on December 20, 1946, in Perry to Ervin, a farmer, and Ophie, a teacher. Perdue graduated from high school in Warner Robins and later attended the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, where he was a walk-on for the university’s football team. In 1971 Perdue earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. He served in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Ohio from 1971 to 1974, and achieved the rank of captain in just three years. In 1972 he wed Mary Ruff of Atlanta. The couple have four children, two sons and two daughters, and they occasionally have served as foster parents for children awaiting adoption.
After the air force, Perdue worked briefly as a veterinarian in Raleigh, North Carolina, before returning to Georgia. He became a successful small-business owner in Bonaire, in Houston County, with holdings concentrated mainly in agribusiness and transportation.
Throughout the 1980s, Perdue served as an elected member of the Houston County Planning and Zoning Board. In 1990 he was elected to the state senate and served in that capacity for eleven years—as a Democrat from 1990 to 1998 and as a Republican from 1998 to 2001. (Beginning in the 1990s many conservative Georgia Democrats transferred their affiliation to the Republican Party, which they felt had come to better represent their views.) While a state senator, Perdue chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee from 1993 to 1994, served as the Democratic majority leader from 1995 to 1996, and acted as president pro tempore from 1997 to 1998. In 2001 Perdue resigned his position in the state senate to run for governor.
In November 2002 Perdue defeated Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes; Perdue claimed 51.4 percent of the popular vote while Barnes garnered 46.3 percent. In addition to crucial support from Georgia’s teachers, much of Perdue’s success against Barnes in the general election was later attributed to the controversy surrounding the design (and redesign) of Georgia’s state flag. On January 13, 2003, Perdue was sworn in as governor.
Perdue’s reelection campaign in 2006 was a heated one in which each candidate, the incumbent Perdue and the Democratic nominee, Georgia lieutenant governor Mark Taylor, charged his opponent with ethics violations and political mudslinging. Georgians reelected Perdue, who garnered 57.9 percent of the popular vote to Taylor’s 38.2 percent.
During his two terms as governor, Perdue faced a variety of challenges, including resolving the state flag controversy and managing the impact of a national economic recession. He also focused on education and school-system reform, as well as on child welfare and family services. In 2008 he established the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.
Perdue came into office with the goal of administering state government as a business enterprise. To that end in 2003, soon after taking office, Perdue oversaw the establishment of the Commission for a New Georgia. According to its mission statement, the commission was tasked with engaging private citizens from Georgia’s business community to develop more efficient and cost-effective methods of providing government services. Perdue appointed Joe W. Rogers Jr. (the chairman, chief executive officer, and president of Waffle House) and Robert Hatcher (the president and chief executive officer of MidCountry Financial Corporation) to co-chair the commission, which ceased operations in 2010.
Perdue’s administration was characteristically conservative: he opposed same-sex marriage in Georgia, supported legislation intended to restrict illegal immigration into the state, and signed a bill requiring all Georgians to present a government-issued form of identification in order to vote.
By the end of his second term, Perdue faced criticism for his lack of action on such issues as Georgia’s ongoing transportation problems and its water usage dispute with neighboring states Alabama and Florida. Observers also noted that Perdue did not enact a signature piece of legislation during his administration.
State Flag Controversy
In 2001 Governor Barnes supported and supervised a redesign of the state flag, which had been adopted in 1956 and displayed controversial Confederate imagery. While campaigning against Barnes in 2001-2, Perdue promised voters a referendum that would allow Georgians to choose the design of the flag for themselves. After Perdue’s election, controversy surrounding the language and legality of the flag ballot stalled the referendum. As a result of this delay, Perdue drew the ire of southern and Confederate heritage groups, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who alleged that Perdue had gone back on his campaign promise.
In 2004 Georgians finally voted on the flag issue. The ballot, however, fueled further controversy as the options did not include the 1956 version of the flag—the version that most prominently incorporated the Confederate battle flag. Voters had the option of choosing either a new design based on Georgia’s 1879 flag or the 2001 flag adopted by the Barnes administration. In the end, Georgians supported the new design.
Rather than raise taxes in his second term, Perdue initiated substantial spending cuts to the state budget, citing the national economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the housing market in 2008. At the same time Perdue, along with other Republican governors of southern states, voiced opposition to an economic stimulus plan proposed by U.S. president Barack Obama. After the U.S. Congress passed this legislation, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, however, Georgia accepted the stimulus funds. This revenue provided the state with federal funds for infrastructure projects, unemployment compensation, education, and health care.
Over the course of his administration, Perdue pursued economic development opportunities on the international stage. During his administration, the ranking of the port of Savannah rose from the twenty-fourth busiest port in the United States for international trade (by value of shipments) in 2003 to the sixth busiest in 2008.
In 2006 Perdue signed a deal with South Korean automobile manufacturer Kia to build a new manufacturing facility in Troup County. The factory, Kia’s first in the United States, produced its first vehicle in November 2009, with an initial workforce of 1,200. Perdue also undertook several international trade missions during his administration. In 2008 he visited China to engage in trade talks, and he visited again in 2010 with representatives from Atlanta-based Coca-Cola. He also led trade delegations in 2010 to Cuba, a major consumer of Georgia’s poultry products, and to South America.
On the domestic front, Perdue initiated a significant boost to Georgia’s economy in 2008 by signing a revised Entertainment Industry Investment Act. This legislation gave motion picture and television production companies a 20 percent tax credit for filming in Georgia, with an additional 10 percent credit for including a logo promoting the state in the production credits. As a result of these tax credits, the film industry’s economic impact in Georgia amounted to $2.4 billion by 2011.
Perdue also dealt with challenges in the education arena, from the elementary to collegiate levels, during his tenure. Throughout both of his terms, “austerity” measures were enacted at the K-12 levels to curtail spending in education. Nevertheless, many educators supported Perdue’s proposal to compensate teachers based on performance—a plan that would tie increases in teacher pay to improvement in student standardized test scores—and as of 2010 educational spending still constituted more than half the state’s budget.
In 2008 the Perdue administration successfully investigated ethics violations in the state’s public schools. Perdue fired several members of the Clayton County school board whose ethical violations resulted in the system losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. (Clayton County was the first system in forty years to lose accreditation in the United States.) That same year, Perdue ordered the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to investigate allegations of cheating by teachers and administrators on standardized math tests in Georgia’s public schools, a situation exposed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Results of the investigation led to the recommendation in 2009 of strict sanctions against elementary schools in DeKalb, Fulton, and Glynn counties. Further investigations were initiated during Perdue’s term, and the results, released in 2011, revealed widespread cheating in both the Atlanta Public School System and the Dougherty County school system.
Perdue left office on January 10, 2011, at the end of his second term, and was succeeded as governor by Republican and former U.S. congressman Nathan Deal. Perdue’s gubernatorial portrait, which now hangs in the state capitol, was the first such painting to include the first lady of Georgia. After his exit from the political stage, Perdue became a founding partner at Perdue Partners, an Atlanta-based economic development firm specializing in global commodities trade and consulting services. Perdue became the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on April 25, 2017. Perdue’s political papers and memorabilia are housed at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia.