Outlines Of A New Georgia

When Sonny Perdue won his improbable victory in the 2002 governor’s race he called his campaign “Perdue for a New Georgia,” and he followed up in office by appointing a “Commission for a New Georgia” to revise state government’s business procedures.

Perdue is correct that there is a “New Georgia” taking shape out there, but the new Georgia could turn out to be a very different kind of place from the one where conservative white voters from suburban and rural areas helped elect him and then re-elect him as governor. Quite different indeed.

When you look at voter registration numbers and demographic trends, you see Georgia is a state that changes with each passing day – a changeover that could have interesting political implications two or three election cycles from now.

In January 2001, whites made up 72.1 percent of the nearly 4 million active registered voters in Georgia while African Americans were 25.7 percent of the total. There were only 933 registered voters in the whole state who identified themselves as His-panic and 1,019 voters who identified themselves as Asian.

Over the next seven years, the number of white voters essentially remained flat – by July 2007 there were 2,884,468 whites on the voter rolls, an increase of less than 23,000 over the 2001 total.

During that same period, however, the number of black voters grew by nearly 154,000 while the number of Hispanic voters jumped from less than 1,000 to nearly 46,000 and the number of Asian voters increased by 43,000.

Voters who identified themselves as belonging to the “Other” racial category more than doubled, from 84,612 in 2001 to 170,086 in 2007.

As a result of these demographic shifts, the percentage of whites who make up the state’s voting base has dropped by more than 5 percent to the point that they now account for 66.9 percent of the registered voters. Blacks now make up 26.9 percent of the total, while Hispanics and Asians each account for about 1 percent. The number of voters classified as “Other” is now almost 4 percent.

Look at what is happening demographically in suburban counties such as Gwinnett and Cobb that were once overwhelmingly white and gave the bulk of their votes to Republican candidates at election time.

Whites made up 67 percent of Gwinnett’s population in 2000, but that percentage had dropped to 52.5 percent by 2006 and could be below the 50 percent level by now. Gwinnett had 803 Latino registered voters in January 2003, but by November 2007 that number had exploded to 9,719, the highest number of registered Latino voters in the state – a 1,110 percent growth rate in self-identified Latino voters in less than five years. (Not coincidentally, two of the three Latinos serving in the General Assembly are from Gwinnett districts.)

In Cobb County, long considered ground zero of the Republican Party power base in Georgia, the percentage of white students in the public school system fell below the 50 percent level in 2005-06 and dropped again to 46.7 percent this academic year.

Cobb voters are electing Democrats to the Legislature again, and they even elected a county commissioner who was not only a Democrat, but an African-American woman to boot. The Republican incumbent she defeated has now switched to the Democratic Party.

Those demographic trends flow in both directions, of course. The city of Atlanta, which has elected African-American mayors since 1973, is seeing the percentage of its white residents grow as suburbanites frustrated with traffic congestion and development sprawl move back in town to places such as Atlantic Station.

When Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, an esteemed black leader from the civil rights era, was reelected last year, white voters cast 51 percent of the ballots in the 5th Congressional District that he has represented for more than 20 years.

By the next municipal election or the one after that, it would not be a huge surprise if a white candidate were elected mayor of Atlanta.

“It’s not spoken about much, but there are concerns that we will lose, as African Americans, our political base, which has largely been the city of Atlanta for major leadership within the state,” current Mayor Shirley Franklin said recently.

In a growing state like ours, demographics and politics are never static. There will be a lot of losers – and winners too – as the new Georgia takes shape.

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