Diggin' Up Bones

Bill Shipp drags the skeletons out of Georgia’s political closet.

Longtime Georgia Trend political columnist Bill Shipp knows where all of the bodies are buried in the state’s political past. Shipp covered Georgia politics for more than 50 years, from the early days of the Civil Rights Movement to 2009, when he finally closed the cap on his pen and retired. During that time, he had a clear-eyed view of the political goings-on, and he never claimed a political side. “No matter where he was published, everyone read him,” says Georgia Trend Co-Editor in Chief and Publisher Neely Young. “He took many politicians to the woodshed, both Democrats and Republicans.”

As Georgia Trend celebrates its 30th anniversary, Associate Editor Karen Kirkpatrick sat down with Shipp to haul all of the skeletons out of the Peach State’s proverbial political closet. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.

GT: Let’s first take a look back at Georgia’s governors since 1985. What did each do well?

Shipp: Gov. Joe Frank Harris called himself the education governor, and he did that very well. He gave the teachers raises and took care of them.

Zell Miller is the one who really did a lot. Miller did more than any other governor, I believe, for education since Carl Sanders. Miller, against all political wisdom, brought in the state lottery and started the HOPE Scholarship. He funded pre-K, gave a lot of money, as much as he could, to the University System. He was just a go-getter. He’d come out of an academic background. He was hard to get along with, but he did very well.

Roy Barnes, I believe, would have carried on that tradition, except he tried to make some adjustments in teachers’ compensation and teachers’ pension benefits. That angered a lot of members of the education group and contributed to the fact that he was a one-term governor.

The other thing that contributed to his defeat was changing the Georgia flag. He had planned, when running for office, that in his second term he would change the flag. Some business leaders were impatient because the Final Four basketball officials were talking about not going to Atlanta [because of the Confederate emblem on the flag]. He was pressured into immediately changing the flag. That caused a public outcry. It also caused a group to be formed who were informally known as flaggers. They followed him everywhere he went and yelled at him and waved and generally caused him all kinds of consternation.

Then he also tackled the third rail of Georgia politics by talking transportation. There was a time in Georgia politics that if you built a fellow a road, you could bring in his vote. We have reached a time now, if you build a fellow a road, he will vote against you sure as hell. So Roy tried to put in an outer loop [around Atlanta], and this alienated everybody. They wanted nothing to do with it. Said it would ruin their property values, blah, blah, blah. The loop failed. What that has done is I-75 now has a rush hour that begins about 4:30 in the morning and ends at midnight every day.

GT: What about Sonny Perdue?

Shipp: I don’t want to get into Sonny – yeah, I do. When Sonny Perdue was in the Georgia Senate, he led the crusade to deregulate natural gas, with the promise that people would have more money because they wouldn’t have to pay such high gas bills. That was adopted by the legislature [in 1998]. And I’m still looking for lower gas bills. Seems to me they continue to rise. I think that’s one of Sonny’s great accomplishments, helping the gas industry. He also had the bad luck to come into office at about the time the recession began to form. So he didn’t do very much.

GT: And Nathan Deal?

Shipp: Nathan Deal served for years representing Congress. I’m still searching the Congressional Record to find what he did. There’s no trace that I could find. In fact, the [House ethics] committee was about to hold hearings on Nathan Deal’s career in Congress – or lack thereof. They claimed he used his office to promote his own business. Which was, he might say he was in the antique business. I’ve heard people say he was in the junk business. The claim was out there, and it was widespread in Congress. Both sides of the aisle talked about Nathan’s inactivity. So just before the gavel fell on the ethics committee hearings involving Gov. Deal, he resigned from Congress and came back home [and] ran for governor.

And that’s the story of Nathan Deal as governor. The fact he had an “R” before his name got him elected.

He’s cut back on education, the HOPE Scholarship. Tuition has gone up steadily in state schools. Whatever happened to the idea that these were land-grant colleges, the University of Georgia, and land grant meant they could educate everybody?

GT: Now that we know the players, what’s the biggest political event in Georgia over the past 30 years?

Shipp: Starting in the ‘80s, we had a definite up-trend in the Democratic Party and slate and just the very beginning of the Republican takeover.

Zell Miller was elected governor, a very strong governor, who brought in a very full agenda of education. Roy Barnes came after him. Joe Frank Harris came before him. Those are generally strong, pro-education governors. They described themselves as education governors. Then something happened, and I don’t know what it was.

The Republicans fulfilled President [Lyndon] Johnson’s prediction that one day the South for generations would fall into Republican hands. Georgia had never had a Republican governor or lieutenant governor or any significant majority in either house of the legislature. And suddenly [after a 130]-year period, Republicans occupied the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s [offices] and several minor elected posts and held firmly to both houses of the legislature.

GT: What other events have been important?

Shipp: We’ve had a turnaround of racial attitudes. In the 1980s, we seemed to be getting the racial problems solved. One thing, we had Wyche Fowler, [a white man] elected to the House from a majority black district in Atlanta [from 1977-1987] just a few years after Andy Young [a black man] had been elected from that same district, the 5th district, [when it was] majority white. That was solid evidence that we were finally making some progress in race, that it wasn’t the overwhelming card that it is now.

GT: What are the other important political events of the last 30 years?

Shipp: It was really an optimistic time in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The economy was doing really well. In 1988, Georgia – Atlanta – attracted the Democratic National Convention. In 1996, we hosted the Olympics, and while that was not without problems, that still helped put us on the map. Then at the end of that era [in 2000], we had a Super Bowl – we didn’t play in a Super Bowl, but we had a Super Bowl. And that was a big event. All three of those were big events. We also [hosted the city’s first] Final Four basketball elimination [in 2002].

Those were seen as guideposts that Atlanta was thriving. We had the busiest airport in the country. In the minds of those who lived around us, Atlanta was the focal point of the Southeastern United States.

GT: How do you think Georgia got where it is today?

Shipp: I could say it’s the Republicans’ fault, but I won’t say that. A lot of things changed. The Democrats saw that the South was no longer the solid South. So they weren’t really paying attention beyond North Carolina, and they’re losing faith in that. So now Georgia’s not even considered part of the political world in Washington.

Georgia has a fairly weak and anonymous [congressional] delegation, where Georgia used to have guys who were in charge, like Richard Russell and Sam Nunn, to name just two. Those people took care of things back home as well as taking care of things in Washington. Now bringing home federal projects is frowned upon. So Georgia has lost its place as No. 1 or No. 2 for defense spending.

GT: If you were still writing about Georgia politics today, what would you be covering?

Shipp: [The hunt] for a dynamic candidate – either Democrat or Republican – for governor, who would get Georgia back to where Miller had it and where Carl Sanders started it.

I’d also be writing about the needs of the state, and how those needs are not being met. I’d write about the failure of the state to take advantage of the Obama Administration’s plans for healthcare. There are hundreds of thousands of Georgians who are not insured because Gov. Deal did not subscribe to that part of Medicaid that would have helped fund that; Medicaid also would have saved some rural hospitals. And I think that is terrible.

I’d also be writing about what the Democrats [are] going to do. They can’t take Georgia, but they can tie up a lot of Republican resources if they get a good turnout of minorities. Because we have a big minority, not only blacks, but also Hispanics, there’s no reason the Democrats can’t spend money to get people to go to the polls. And the time will finally come when [Democrats] will be in the majority, but they can’t help themselves if they don’t vote.

GT: Are you optimistic for the future here in Georgia?

Shipp: Yes, because I think it can’t go on forever like this. You can only go so far down this road of not helping the schools as much as you should. Not aiding education, causing a university education to be out of the reach of most. When the University of Georgia is out of reach of most kids in the state, there’s something seriously wrong. And when hundreds of thousands of Georgians are left without health insurance … that’s damn foolishness.

So it has been my experience over the years that when the night gets the darkest is when the daylight comes. 

Categories: Features, People