In the months since he announced he would try for another term as governor, Roy Barnes has been flying under the radar of Georgia politics.
His campaign strategists made the decision that Barnes would be almost invisible in the Atlanta media market. Where candidates like John Oxendine and Nathan Deal have been constant sources of coverage for TV news shows, Barnes has mostly avoided the cameras.
The former governor instead has been conducting an extended listening tour across South Georgia, going from town to town for meetings with sheriffs, courthouse officials and local leaders so that he can talk about the issues of most interest to the community.
Someone in Barnes’ position needs to do a lot of listening and bridge-building. He irritated so many different groups of Georgians during his first term that they ganged up in 2002 and voted Republican Sonny Perdue into office. It wasn’t just an embarrassing loss for an incumbent governor — it was the tipping point that led to the collapse of a Democratic Party that had ruled state government for more than a century.
After keeping a low profile for all those months, Barnes popped up in front of the TV cameras last week for a news conference where he endorsed Kasim Reed in the Atlanta mayor’s race.
This is not any old mayor’s race, either. Atlanta’s demographic trends have created a situation where the city could elect its first white mayor in four decades, if Mary Norwood defeats Reed in the Dec. 1 runoff election. This is history in the making, which guaranteed that news coverage of the Barnes endorsement would be intense.
Barnes stepped right into the media spotlight to support Reed and didn’t hesitate to bring up a sensitive issue — removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag — that had contributed to his defeat in 2002.
"In those very difficult days when we were trying to establish a flag in the state that represents all of our people and was not a divisive symbol, Kasim Reed was there," Barnes said. "There’s only one person that can bring our capital city together with the state of Georgia, and that’s Kasim Reed."
Barnes has to know that he is exposing himself to a major political risk when he takes such a highly public stand in the mayor’s race.
There is the racial issue, of course. The political machine built by the late Maynard Jackson that ruled Atlanta for so long sees that political control slipping away with the possible election of Norwood. There have already been several racially charged remarks from Jackson cohorts about the "threat" of electing a white mayor.
Barnes is stepping into that sea of racial hostility, a move that could hurt him with some of the people he will be trying to win back in 2010. By aligning himself with the black candidate in this mayor’s race, Barnes could turn off moderate white voters who otherwise might consider supporting him next year. He acknowledged that when he endorsed Reed.
"I’ve contributed to a few Republicans over the years," Barnes said. "I’m not going to tell you that I haven’t, because I thought they were good and qualified and I’ve had great relationships with them. Let’s quit worrying about all of the partisan issues and get down to folks that can actually deliver and do things."
If Reed loses the runoff — and he was trailing Norwood by nearly 10 points after the first round of voting — Barnes leaves himself wide open to criticism that he’s so politically damaged he can’t even affect the outcome of a mayor’s race. That is something you’ll hear from Democrats running against Barnes in the primary and Republicans who would face him in the general election if he should secure the nomination.
"There are some that say, what a dumb political move, and some that say, what a smart political move," Barnes admitted. "I like Kasim Reed. I know he’s competent. I know he’s qualified. I know he’ll lead the city of Atlanta well, that’s good enough for me."
He added this: "I’ve got to the point in life that I’ve quit worrying about what other people prognosticate and think about things, I just do what I think’s right."
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 Wednesdays.