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Former radio host challenges Barrow
John Barrow - photo by Herald File

            SAVANNAH — A former Savannah talk-radio host said Monday he’s seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow in Georgia’s 12th Congressional District.

            Ben Crystal spent six years on Savannah station WHBQ as an often acerbic host touting conservative politics and lambasting liberals under the pseudonym Ben Bennett. He was fired in 2006 after the station settled a lawsuit by a Chatham County commissioner who accused Crystal of slander.

            Crystal, 37, said he hopes voters see him as a ‘‘regular guy’’ rather than as a local celebrity from his radio days.

            ‘‘There’s nothing regular about that career at all, but I’m a regular guy,’’ said Crystal, who now works as a personal fitness trainer. ‘‘My goal is not to be a politician. My goal is to be one among the many in District 12 whose voice isn’t being heard as well as it could be.’’

            Crystal joins former congressional staffer John Stone of Augusta and Ray McKinney of Savannah, who decided to run for Congress after abandoning a longshot presidential campaign, in the GOP primary race. Georgia will hold its primary elections July 15.

            The 12th District includes much of Savannah and Augusta as well as a large swath of rural eastern Georgia. Though drawn as a district to favor Democrats, it has not yielded easy victories to Barrow, of Savannah. In 2006, Barrow won a second term by a mere 864 votes over former Republican congressman Max Burns.

            Without any well-known challengers in the race, there’s no clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. And Barrow has plenty of money — $1.1 million on hand at the end of last year — for the fall campaign.

            Joe Steffen, a Savannah attorney and vice chairman of the Chatham County Democratic Party, appeared several times on Crystal’s radio show and considers him a friend. He can also attest to how polarizing Crystal was as a radio host.

            When Steffen ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in 2006, he said, some Democratic officeholders refused to support him because he had been on Crystal’s show.

            ‘‘His fan base isn’t likely to include a lot of people who are middle of the road, moderate folks who you would need to win an election,’’ Steffen said. ‘‘But I wouldn’t want Democrats to underestimate Ben’s intelligence, because he’s a really bright guy. He certainly wasn’t a soft-spoken guy. He built his local reputation on being in your face.’’

            In 2005, Chatham County Commissioner Harris Odell filed lawsuit claiming Crystal had slandered him by calling him a ‘‘thief’’ on the air.

            The radio station settled the suit out of court and Crystal was fired soon afterward.

            ‘‘The likelihood the two were not connected was slim,’’ Crystal said. ‘‘I never really got what I thought was a satisfactory answer and I never really cared. I thought it was bogus.’’

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