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Politics Mondays: Georgia Dems: A Minority Party In More Ways Than One


Battered by defeats and bled by defections, Georgia Democrats are becoming a minority party.

In more ways than one.

Exit polls suggest that most of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Peach State votes on Nov. 2 were cast by blacks.

Less than one white person in four - barely half the national average - voted for him.

And there's more: Following the election, about half the Democrats in the General Assembly are black.

By way of contrast, about 27 percent of the state's registered voters are black, as were about 25 percent of Georgians who voted Nov. 2.

Months ago, veteran civil rights leader Joseph Lowery sounded an alarm over what he viewed as an ominous trend.

Georgia Democrats might soon be perceived as the black party, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership conference said.

"It's very unhealthy that the political process is divided along racial lines to such a large extent," Lowery said in a recent interview. "It's unhealthy for the nation. It's not good for the country. It's not good for our future."

Nor is it good for Democrats or African Americans, others say.

Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, is blunt in his assessment.

"If the Democratic Party is perceived as the black party," Bullock said, "then it is permanently consigned to be the minority party."

Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist, agrees.

"It's a real issue," he said. "Most people who study these things think blacks make up half, or maybe more, of Georgia Democrats. To the extent that continues, it's very hard to win."

The consequences for African Americans, says James DeLorme, a black Savannah political activist, should be obvious.

"If you not only are a racial minority but are in the minority party, you don't have any power over anything," DeLorme said.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, chairman of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, doesn't disagree.

Brooks has conceded that, under the GOP ascendancy, black-oriented measures, such as those dealing with racial profiling, likely will gain little traction.

The Democratic response

Chatham County Democratic Chairman Rex Templeton, a losing state Senate candidate Nov. 2, is well aware that white voters are turning their backs on his party.

It's no coincidence, he said, that his losing margin in Liberty and Bryan counties almost exactly matched the racial makeup of those areas.

Other Democratic leaders - white and black - tend to either downplay the problem or concede it exists but say it would go away if Republicans weren't so nasty.

Asked about the trend through a spokesman, state chairman Bobby Kahn issued a written statement.

"This is a diverse party that has a history of working to improve our communities and our schools," Kahn said.

"Our elected constitutional officers - Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, Secretary of State Cathy Cox, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond - all had a broad base of support across Georgia."

Baker and Thurmond are black.

Brooks doesn't acknowledge there's is a problem.

In contrast to Republicans, whom he describes as the party of "rich white men," he says Democrats are "a party of diversity that truly reflects the diversity of America."

Blacks remain loyal to the party, he says, because the GOP offers them no attractive alternatives.

Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, chairman of the Black Legislative Caucus, concedes that Republicans have won more support among white voters.

But he says a lot of those voters are outsiders attracted to the state by the prosperity created by effective Democratic government in recent decades.

State Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, acknowledges "a problem of perception" about the party's racial makeup.

"It's a perception we have to fight," he said. "... I don't think we'll be a majority black party."

Evolution of trend

But, if the people who vote in Democratic primary elections are any indication, it nearly already is. According to the secretary of state's office, 47.2 percent of those who voted in the party's July 20 primary were black.

Prodded about such numbers, Brooks acknowledged that the composition of his party is becoming "blacker and browner" but insisted that it's a "reflection of America."

He, Bordeaux and others, attribute the erosion of white support for Democrats to Republican manipulation of racially charged issues.

They say some mailings for GOP candidates pictured their Democratic foes with controversial black politicians such as former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney and former state Sen. Charles Walker.

Both were defeated in 2002 but won back their posts this year.

Not surprisingly, GOP strategists won't own up to such ploys.

But they concede that their party owes much of its 2002 GOP takeover of the governorship to the state flag issue dispute.

Sonny Perdue ran for governor promising, among other things, to let the people vote on restoring the old Confederate-style flag the Democrats replaced in 2001.

Savannah Republican Eric Johnson, now president pro tem of the State Senate, draped the old banner around his neck as he rode in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Republicans say Democratic high-handedness and the people's right to decide - not race - were the real issues.

A compromise flag design the legislature passed was approved by voters this year.

Still, tens of thousands of small-town and rural white Democrats defected to Perdue and GOP state Senate candidates in 2002 in the wake of the flag flap.

More than race

This year, other matters drove white flight from the party.

For starters, Kerry, a dour, long-faced Yankee who windsurfs, didn't play well in Mayberry - or the Peach State.

"Kerry didn't help us in Georgia," said Rep. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, a Kerry delegate to the Democratic national convention.

But abortion, public display of the Ten Commandments and, more than anything else, gay marriage mattered more.

An anti-gay marriage measure on the Nov. 2 state ballot not only passed with 76 percent of the vote, but also likely increased turnout among religious conservatives likely to support the GOP.

"We've allowed the Republicans to use these issues to drive a wedge between the party and some of its voters," Brooks said. "They are trying to win at any cost. They think that, as long as they can keep us divided along racial lines, they will stay in power."

Experts such as UGA's Bullock and Emory's Black concede that the GOP has exploited such issues. It will likely continue to use them, the experts say, because the strategy worked.

And it will continue to work, the professors add, unless Democrats change their tune.

"They are well out of step with the people of Georgia," Bullock said.

Black cites polls pointing toward the same conclusion.

While some Democrats suggest that rural whites can be wooed back with gestures such as NASCAR-themed events, others concede that issues are the problem.

"In the last few years," Jackson said, "there has been a change, a mindset that we have moved too far to the left and are catering to immorality."

But neither Jackson, nor any other major Democrat, proposes an about-face on such issues.

Instead, Jackson suggests the party tout its record.

"No other state has as tough a record on crime," he said. "And it happened under Democrats. We can talk about that. We can talk about HOPE scholarships."

That likely will remain unconvincing, Bullock, Black and others say, unless the Democrats modify their unpopular stands on moral and religious issues.

The deeper problem

More serious, perhaps, is the question of whether the party can change.

As Georgia Democrats have, in Brooks' terms, become "blacker and browner," they've also become more liberal. The reason is simple: The conservatives have left.

And that hemorrhaging might not have stopped.

"The Democrats already have lost their conservative wing," Black said. "What they really have to worry about is their moderate wing."

Indeed, Savannah political consultant David Simons, who works mostly with Republicans, says the Democrats' shrunken voter base will tend to make the party even more liberal.

"When Democrats run in primaries, they will have to run to the left to win," Simons said.

As a result, agrees Bullock, Democrats may advocate policies that "play well in the urban centers of Georgia but can't win a majority statewide."

For example, Black says, some have already pushed for faster restoration of felons' voting rights, a non-starter for most Georgians.

The weeks ahead might be grim for the party, says Simons, who predicts more Democrats in the state House will defect to the GOP before the General Assembly reconvenes next month. Three switched parties last month.

"They may be left with a core of African Americans, plus some urban white liberals," he said.

Will the GOP blow it?

In the near term, the party's future may be out of the Democrats hands; the Republicans at the helm in Atlanta may determine their fate.

"The Republicans still have to demonstrate that they can govern effectively," Bullock said. "If they overplay their hand, if they move too far to the right, there will be a backlash."

Recent polls suggest that Perdue hasn't yet sold himself to voters.

As the next year unfolds, he'll have to preside over lean budgets that will continue to squeeze education and health programs.

That, Bordeaux says, will shift the attention of white voters away from "moral issue" issues.

"Sooner or later," he said, "the Republicans will have to deal with bread and butter instead of resorting to bread and circuses. They're going to have talk about living-wage jobs, how we feed our families.

"People are going to come over to our point of view, which is that we're all in this together and we need solutions that work for everybody."

State Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, agrees.

She concedes that the issues worked against the Democrats in 2002 and this year.

But she adds that Republicans now must take responsibility for whatever is going wrong, so things may be different in the 2006 elections.

"If the people are satisfied and pleased with what's happening, then fine," she said. "If not, they may want to make some changes."

Larry Peterson is a political reporter for The Savannah Morning News. He may be contacted at larry.peterson@savannahnow.com

This article appears in The Savanna Morning News.


Larry Peterson

Monday, December 6, 2004

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