Back To Square One

Tom Crawford

The Georgia Democratic Party has always reminded me of the Polish army in September 1939, when it tried to hold off a blitzkrieging German invasion – spearheaded by the latest technology in Panzer tanks and dive bombers – with a military force composed in part of horse-mounted cavalrymen armed with sabers.

Not surprisingly, the Germans cut through the Polish lines like a chainsaw through a butter stick. In that same way, Georgia Republicans have smacked Democrats around over the last three election cycles.

While the Republican Party methodically organized, raised money and recruited strong candidates, Democrats argued among themselves and used their meager resources to buy TV time for a gubernatorial candidate so hapless he could barely draw 38 percent of the vote in a state that had elected Democratic governors for 130 years.

There’s finally been a recognition that things had to change and Democrats had to start acting like a real party. “People talk about rebuilding a state party – we’ve got to build a party,” says state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna). “The air game is important, but you’ve got to have boots on the ground.”

Bobby Kahn, a link to the old days when the Democratic Party was merely an appendage of the governor’s office, stepped down as chairman in January. Party activists, able to pick their own chairman for the first time ever, turned to a woman from one of Georgia’s most venerable political families, Jane Vandiver Kidd.

Kidd is the daughter of former governor Ernest Vandiver, who courageously oversaw the integration of the state’s schools in the early 1960s, and the grandniece of Richard B. Russell, an imposing figure in 20th century Georgia politics. She knows what it takes to win a political race, and she understands the party needs to be doing the basic things like building county organizations, compiling up-to-date voter lists and working the grassroots to turn out voters on election day.

“We can do more for our candidates, our elected officials and our counties,” Kidd says. National Chairman Howard Dean used a 50-state strategy to help Democrats gain control of Congress in 2006 – “we need to do the same here in Georgia in all 159 counties,” she says.

With a woman and an African American (Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond) in the party’s top two positions, Democrats hope they can shore up weaknesses that hampered them last year when women voters deserted the party after the vindictive gubernatorial primary fight between Mark Taylor and Cathy Cox and turnout among African-American voters decreased by significant numbers. The party has also elected a Latino vice chairman, Virgilio Perez-Pascoe, to help connect with the state’s fastest-growing demographic group.

The leadership lineup reflects the concern among party regulars that Democrats have been putting too much emphasis on Metro Atlanta and neglecting the rest of the state: Kidd grew up in Franklin County, and she and Thurmond both represented Athens House districts in the Legislature.

One of the biggest tasks could well be getting people to even admit they are Democrats in an increasingly red state where many voters flinch if they see a “D” after a candidate’s name.

“If Democrats can win in Montana, Democrats can win anywhere, including in Georgia,” says Jim Butler, a Columbus trial lawyer and a major financial supporter of the party. “But that will require a substantial change in public perceptions of Georgia Democrats. So long as many folks in most parts of the state are embarrassed to admit they are Democrats, Democrats will have a tough time winning.”

Democrats will need to do a more effeTom Crawford, editor of the news

service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.

For better or worse, Democrats have put the party’s future in Kidd’s hands.

“All of us regret what happened with Mark and Cathy,” House Minority Leader DuBose Porter says. “All of us recognize we have to move on from that. I can’t think of a better person to move on with.”

It’s an enormous task with no guarantee that anyone can pull it off. If Jane Kidd and her Democratic colleagues are successful, then Georgia may finally be an authentic two-party state.

Tom Crawford, editor of the news

service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.

Categories: Political Notes