MAXWELL:  How racial politics play in Georgia

7/15/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Here in the Home of the Braves, the politics of race ain’t nothing like that in Florida.

Back home in the Sunshine State, few black Democrats, elected or otherwise, are saying much of anything positive about white Democrats in either state house after a band of South Florida white representatives orchestrated the ouster of Willie Logan as House speaker designate. He would have been the first black to hold that position in either party.

After Logan was dumped, Republicans, shrewd operators that they are, capitalized on black outrage. During the waning days of the last legislative session, white Republicans let black Democrats waddle up to the trough and feed alongside them. Logan and others were awarded thousands in tax dollars to finance pet projects, some of questionable value.

Here in Georgia, by contrast, African-American Democrats and white Republicans show no signs of hopping in bed together. Their relationship is fraught with traditional mistrust and enmity. A white Republican gubernatorial candidate, for example, is running an anti-affirmative ad suggesting _ to whites, of course _ that unqualified blacks are taking away government contracts and college admissions slots from whites.

Innocent-looking white kids and ordinary-looking white adults appear on the screen; a dolorous voice-over drones out the unfairness of “quotas” and “preferences.”

I cannot imagine a white Republican in Florida _ who is serious about winning a statewide post during these heady days of Jeb Bush’s black outreach _ attempting such a racist stunt. No matter what doubters say, Jeb! is transforming the GOP’s relationship with black voters in the Sunshine State.

In Atlanta, however, the Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda, a consortium of the state’s largest black and minority organizations, has issued a document ranking candidates for governor and lieutenant governor on issues the group deems important. At the same time, the Southeast Region Branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, concentrating on the Southeastern states and Georgia in particular, issued its annual “Report Card” rating members of the U.S. Congress on black-related legislation.

The coalition reports that of a field of 21 candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, only four _ all Democrats _ responded to the group’s questionnaire.

“Maybe it means Republicans have written the black vote off,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a convener of the coalition. “I would think any candidate who is serious about getting black votes ought to be concerned enough to respond to questions from the major black groups in the state.”

Southeast Region NAACP Director Nelson Rivers charged that Georgia’s white Republicans in the 105th Congress apparently hold blacks in contempt. “After tabulating each individual member’s score on . . . important votes,” he said, “it is clear that most of Georgia’s congressional delegation, like all of the other delegations in the Southeast region, is guilty of non-performance on (our) critical issues.”

The Report Card, Rivers said, is intended to replace politicians he calls “Zeroes” and assist the “Heroes” who care about and vote to protect the rights of all Americans, including those of blacks and other minorities.

Georgia State Conference NAACP President Walter Butler Jr. agreed: “We want to serve notice that candidates and elected officials can no longer just pay lip service to the concerns and issues of African-Americans and other minorities without (negative) consequences.”

Although the NAACP is non-partisan and does not publicly endorse political candidates, officials worry that many Georgia white Republicans, along with others nationwide, are trying to turn back the clock on the civil rights gains of the last 40 years. Julian Bond, an Atlanta native and the NAACP national chairman, said as much in his keynote address opening the group’s 89th annual convention.

Racism, he said, is alive and well in the South, especially in Georgia, where some Republicans are boldly using affirmative action as the new wedge issue.

Again, white Republicans in Florida, perhaps in deference to Bush, are avoiding the rhetoric that scares black Democrats. Would Georgia’s GOP become kinder and gentler if white Democrats here handed them a Willie Logan? Would they, too, make room at the trough for a group they historically have rejected?