Over the past year or so, there has been one question about politics that I hear more often than any other: "Is Roy going to run?"
The "Roy" is former Gov. Roy Barnes and the questions generally come from Democrats yearning for someone who would actually be a credible statewide candidate in this top-of-the-ticket race next year.
For a long time, my answer to all those questions was "probably not." I took Barnes seriously when he said that his loss in the 2002 election to Sonny Perdue had cured him of the disease of politics, and that he was having too much fun making money with his law practice and playing with his grandkids.
In the last couple of months, however, the Marietta lawyer has been tossing out hints that he just might get into that governor's race after all.
In early February, Barnes took a high-profile stand in an op-ed column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he peeled the hide off corporate lobbyists who were working - successfully, as it turned out - to grease the skids for passage of a bill that will enrich Georgia Power by more than $1 billion by allowing the utility to charge ratepayers early for a nuclear plant.
"A People's Lobbyist would point out that Georgia Power has a rate case next year, and it is commonly thought that we are overpaying them today given their investments and the monopoly granted to them," Barnes wrote, arguing for the creation of a lobbyist who would work for everyday Georgians.
Barnes also has been confirming in public speeches, such as a recent one to a group of Democratic-leaning lawyers, that he is at least considering a run for governor and will make his decision known shortly after the current legislative session adjourns.
In fact, Barnes will have a convenient public appearance coming up in May, when the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank, will present him with the organization's annual "Visionary Award" at a dinner planned for the Georgia Aquarium. It would be the ideal forum from which to announce a statewide candidacy, if Barnes should decide that's what he wants to do.
"Roy's got to say something soon," said a veteran political operative. "People need to decide if they're going to get behind him in the governor's race, or DuBose Porter (the current House minority leader) or David Poythress (former state adjutant general)."
The one issue that could tip Barnes toward making the decision to run, I am told, is transportation and the failure of the state's elected leadership to deal with our overcrowded highways.
With just a few days left in the current General Assembly session, the House and Senate are still miles apart on how to raise tax revenues for highway improvements and on what to do about restructuring the Department of Transportation. If they can't untangle this knot by the end of the session, they surely won't get anything done next year as the politics of a governor's race pushes everything else to the sidelines.
If the Republican majority is unable to resolve the transportation funding issue during this session — and it's looking more likely that they won't — then the odds would improve that Barnes may get into the race.
"That's the one issue that could give us a Democratic governor again," said an Atlanta business leader who is politically conservative but is also outraged over the GOP's lack of progress in addressing the traffic congestion mess.
Barnes would be the underdog if he should decide to run for the top job again. Georgia has become a more staunchly Republican state since he lived in the governor's mansion, although the growing percentage of black and Latino voters may bode well for Democrats some day.
The Republican nominee — either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Secretary of State Karen Handel or state Rep. Austin Scott — will be campaigning in a state that has become one of the most conservative and GOP-leaning in the country, where the Democratic Party has basically collapsed as an effective political organization. Not even arnes' formidable collection of jokes and one-liners could overcome that advantage.
Should he decide to run, however, he could at least make it interesting. Very interesting.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.