Sonny Perdue was governor of Georgia when I arrived in the state in 2005. He was a Republican state senator before becoming a two-term governor. As governor, he did not seem to get along well with the state legislature. I can’t remember anything he accomplished. The only thing I remember about him is he led a prayer for rain on the steps of the capital during Georgia’s last drought. The prayer did not work even though some people brought umbrellas. The drought today is just bad, but the state has done little to conserve water. Georgia has been fighting the states of Tennessee and Florida over water rights instead of planning what to do. Nathan Deal seems to think rain comes and goes, just as temperatures rise and fall, even when they have only been rising.
Nathan Deal, in case you did not know, is Georgia’s current governor. He was first elected to Congress in 1992 as a Democrat. He won reelection, then switched parties in 1996. As a Republican running for the House, he ran unopposed three out of seven times. During his last term, he came under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. He was under suspicion of unduly influencing legislation in Georgia related to a state vehicle inspection program that gave a monopoly to a car salvage business in which he was a partner. Deal was also under suspicion for incorrectly reporting the income from this business on his federal taxes. He denied the charges, but resigned from Congress to run for governor, thus ending the investigation.
Deal won against a former Democratic governor, but soon came under investigation by the state ethics commission for misuse of campaign funds. Deal reduced the salary of the director of the ethics commission (who soon thereafter resigned) and fired the second in charge, claiming the vastly underfunded commission’s budget had to be cut to save money. Deal eventually paid a small fine for his campaign fund issues, but Kalberman, the director who resigned, sued and won a $700,000 settlement from the state.
Deal, unlike Perdue, has a good relationship with the statehouse and accomplished a great deal with his pro-business agenda. To his credit, he recently vetoed the bill that would allow guns on college campuses and the “religious liberty” bill, which Atlanta businesses opposed because it sanctioned discrimination.
At the Georgia House, there are 180 state representatives, 66% of whom are Republicans. The Georgia Senate has 39 Republicans and 17 Democrats. This is the largest state legislature in the nation. It only meets for part of the year and the salary is nominal. The Washington Post published an article on gerrymandering in Georgia, providing an extreme example of a state whose gerrymandering not only favors the Republican party in US elections, but also in state elections. The article stated that only 3% of those 180 Georgia house seats are competitive.
Where I live, in Fayette County, a controversy about how County Commissioners are elected erupted. At-large voting had historically been used to elect commissioners. In 2010, when the question of fairness of at-large voting first arose, there had never been a Black county commissioner from either party, even though Blacks in Fayette County make up 20% of the population. So, the NAACP sued. The all-Republican County Commissioners voted to defend against the lawsuit. The groups were ordered to enter mediation which did not work. Eventually the lawsuit continued and the court ruled in favor of the NAACP. The County Commissioners spent a million dollars in legal fees. After five county voting districts were created, an African-American was elected. Subsequently, the city of Fayetteville, where I live, which is about 50% White, elected a Republican African-American mayor.
On the ballot I used to vote in November’s tragic election, there were three choices for President and three for US Senator. A Republican and a Libertarian were on the ballot for Public Services Commissioner. David Scott, a Democrat running for reelection to Congress ran unopposed. In six other state legislative races in the county, three Democrats ran unopposed, two Republicans ran unopposed and two races had both Democrats and Republicans on the ticket. In the other thirteen offices, nine Republicans ran unopposed and four races had both Republicans and Democrats on the ballot.
According to Politifact Georgia, in a 2001 poll conducted for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 38% said they were registered Republicans, 35% said they were registered Democrats, and 27% said they were Independents. Additional data suggested that those who are strongly Democratic or lean Democratic slightly outnumber those who are strongly Republican or lean Republican. Hispanics are the largest growing demographic group. The state is thought to be purple, but the results every two years are still predictably red. It is hard for Democrats to win when Republicans run unopposed and the districts are structured to favor Republicans. There were times in the presidential election when pollsters predicted Clinton would win this traditionally Republican voting state. But, it wasn’t to be.
The problem for Democrats in Georgia is that they are not connecting with voters. In Fayette County, the party meets once a month at a local restaurant. Unlike the Republicans, I do not believe the Democratic party has a headquarters. The party asks for volunteers to hold signs and go door to door. I don’t think this approach works well in today’s age.
The Democrats have to think about doing things year round that build active membership. They have to develop new ways to raise money and communicate with fellow Democrats and Independents. They have to run someone in every race even if a loss is inevitable because the race generates name recognition. Democrats have to reach out to young people via social media. They must make clear that their future is at stake.
The two local newspapers are part of the reason Democrats lose. The only editorials in those papers are right wing. Local officials spin the news with regular columns or letters to the editor. When I visit local businesses, Fox News is generally on TV. The culture is Republican.
Changing the culture is the Democrat’s task. It will be hard work, and the payoff is far down the road because the route is uphill and the destination is far away. Long-term thinking is required. So is passion.