How They Brought Old Roy Down

Let's jump into our time machines and take a trip to the state Capitol. We'll land on Nov. 6, 2002 — the morning after the next general election.

Roy E. Barnes is in the history books. He is the first Georgia Democratic governor to be defeated by a Republican.

Worst of all, he is the only Democratic governor ever to be tricked into losing. That's right. The Republican Party of Georgia, long considered the dumbest political organization in the history of the republic, put one over on a governor once touted as the smartest state chief executive in the USA. Here's a step-by-step analysis of how they did it.

  • They recruited former educator Linda Schrenko to run for school superintendent way back in 1994. She demanded students be given standardized tests frequently and that teachers be held accountable for high school students' inability to read and solve math problems. Schrenko defeated once-respected Democratic incumbent Werner Rogers and became the first woman in Georgia elected to a statewide executive office. Over in Texas, another Republican, Gov. George W. Bush, was adopting a similar education-reform plan. Roy Barnes was impressed. He seriously believed Georgians wanted to reform and upgrade their education system.
  • Less than two years after he took office, Gov. Barnes faced a mountain of demands that the state flag be changed. Leaders of the state's hospitality industry, chamber of commerce presidents, owners of giant real estate development firms — they all marched into the governor's office to explain that the Confederate battle emblem must be dropped as the centerpiece of the state flag. Of course, some black leaders wanted the flag changed too, but most said they were willing to wait. Barnes also wanted to delay the politically sensitive act until after his re-election in 2002. The business leaders would have none of it. So Barnes gave in. Little did he know that the big-biz guys, who wanted to alter the flag, bankrolled the state Republican Party. He would soon find out.
  • State Rep. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, hit on a wonderful campaign idea. He would rant and rave against video-poker machines and portray these devices as the worst plague to hit Georgia since the boll weevil. He would induce preachers to stand in their pulpits and condemn the machines. He would fool Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes into believing the vast majority of Georgians wanted video-poker machines banned from the landscape. And Barnes bit.

The big mules almost trapped him into becoming the sole, out-front champion of the Northern Arc highway. But he wised up, backed off and managed to dodge that bullet just in the nick of time.

Nonetheless, the trap was ready to be sprung. As soon as Barnes announced he would follow the Republican plan to reform Georgia education, the Grand Old Party disavowed its own proposals. Said the governor was trying to wreck education. Said Republicans would stop the reform movement if only the voters would give them a chance. Hardly anyone remembered the whole thing was a Republican idea in the first place.

Immediately after Barnes changed the flag, Republican promoters of the idea vanished. In their place came a horde of GOP stalwarts saying the governor had betrayed his birthright, that the Confederate flag stood for everything near and dear to all white Georgians. The Republicans said they would go back to the old flag — or at least let the people vote on it — if good and true Georgians would throw Barnes out of office.

As it turned out, a lot of Georgians opposed video poker. Problem for Barnes is that many more favored it. Mom and pop convenience store owners depended on video-poker machines to induce customers to come into their stores. Service clubs and veterans organizations used proceeds from the video-poker machines to keep their doors open. They hated Barnes' anti-video poker law. So they voted against him for governor. No one remembered the video-poker crusade was a Republican idea.

There you have it — the grand strategy. The GOP used their own programs to bait the governor, and then attacked. It was pure political genius — no other description will do.

Bill Shipp is Associate Editor of Georgia Trend.

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