Eight years after Roy Barnes seemingly burned his bridges with Georgia's teachers, an endorsement by one of the state's largest teacher groups hinted at reconciliation.
The 43,000-member Georgia Association of Educators on Friday announced it is supporting Barnes in the November general election over Nathan Deal, a Republican and former U.S. representative from Gainesville.
GAE President Calvine Rollins called former governor Barnes "the best choice to be able to come in and hit the ground running" on problems like class size and education funding."
Teacher anger over Barnes' aggressive plans to overhaul the state's school system has been blamed for contributing to his 2002 re-election defeat to Sonny Perdue. The Georgia teachers' group declined to endorse a candidate in the 2002 race for governor, a move that was widely read as a rebuke to Barnes, who had secured their support in the 1998 general election.
Barnes has been courting teachers aggressively as part of his comeback bid.
"It was never my intent - and it is not my intent now - not to treasure teachers and learning," Barnes says in a video advertisement posted on his website and shipped to teachers.
In its release Friday, the GAE said Barnes, "while still facing some backlash from his previous administration, now has the benefit of hindsight in what is truly needed to help our public schools and its students."
While a Hall County affiliate of GAE had yet to form an official opinion of the larger group's endorsement, Mae Martin, the local group's political action chairwoman, wasn't pleased. She said GAE's support of Barnes was "not necessarily the opinion of all of its separate members."
"I'm disappointed in my organization for making that endorsement," Martin said.
The Deal campaign on Friday said the endorsement "demonstrates how out of touch the union bosses are with Georgia's educators."
"Teachers haven't forgotten the arrogance and bullying of
the Barnes administration, and most will vote for Nathan Deal," spokesman Brian Robinson said. He noted that in Barnes' home base of Cobb County, the association of educators has endorsed Deal.
Local educators said they weren't sure what impact the GAE endorsement would have on the gubernatorial race.
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said he didn't think the endorsement "packs a punch" because GAE made the decision before Deal released a plan for the state's education system.
"I think it's interesting that any educators organization would take a stand on a candidate before they've even seen the two educational platforms," Schofield said.
Deal's campaign is currently hammering out the details of its platform, Robinson said.
"It took a lot of time and effort to get out the (economic) plan, and we're going to do a thorough job like that on our education plan," Robinson said in an e-mail.
"Jobs and a strong education system go hand-in-hand, and Nathan Deal is committed to well-thought out reforms that will make a positive difference for Georgia's children."
Barnes on Friday called teachers "the backbone of this state."
"Unfortunately, over the past eight years they've had to weather furloughs, layoffs, larger classroom sizes and shortened school years; but I'm running to protect public education and keep these professionals in the classroom," Barnes said.
The GAE overwhelmingly backs Democratic candidates. Its list of statewide endorsements announced on Friday consisted only of Democrats.
As a result, the group's support of Barnes didn't surprise Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville's school system.
"More than ever, educators are aware that the support for education is based in improving the economy in Georgia," Dyer said. "I think the (GAE) endorsement was expected, and there's a lot of time for educators to listen to the issues and then make a good decision in November."
Dyer said about half the teachers working for the city school system are members of the Georgia Association of Educators. The rest, she said, are members of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
But gubernatorial candidates shouldn't look for a blessing from PAGE, said Tim Callahan, the group's spokesman and membership director.
Callahan said the group had received calls from GAE members who were still angry at Barnes and wanted to switch their affiliation to PAGE after the Barnes endorsement.
Currently, PAGE has about 80,000 members, he said.
"We don't endorse candidates," Callahan said. "And today, I'm really glad we don't."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.