Blacks May Have Power To Set Legislative Agenda For Democrats Next Year
Each election produces changes in Georgia’s General Assembly. Some senior members retire while a few junior members have their careers cut short by a disappointed or changing electorate.
Recently some of the most dramatic changes have involved partisanship. The last two elections have seen Republicans increase their numbers in the Senate from 24 to 34. GOP gains in the House came more rapidly and dramatically. After the 2002 election the GOP could count only 72 members. Two years later their 99 adherents had seized control of the lower chamber.
When the House convenes again the Republicans will almost certainly have enlarged their ranks. Four senior Democrats filed to run as Republicans in 2006. Further augmenting the Republican contingent are the districts of several retiring Democrats in which voters have already switched their allegiance to the GOP except for their trusted local representative. But now with the House seat open enough of these voters are likely to extend their support for the GOP still further down the ticket.
Even though Republicans are likely to increase their numbers in the House, African Americans may be bigger winners in 2006. Retirements of a couple of Democratic senators will open seats in districts likely to elect African Americans. This could boost the numbers of black senators to a record high 13, which would almost certainly constitute a majority of the Democratic contingent in the Senate. Adding two senators to the Legislative Black Caucus would match the largest increase in black senators in any election.
House retirements could result in the lower chamber having 44 African Americans when it convenes in 2007. To find an election that added more than four to the Black Caucus House contingent, one would have to go back more than 30 years.
If the partisan makeup of the House in 2007 remains what it is after the switch of the four Democrats and if four additional black Democrats win, then African Americans will constitute 55 percent of their party’s caucus. If Republicans snare several of the seats being vacated by senior Democrats, the African-American share of the House Democratic Caucus might approach 60 percent.
African Americans gains could give the Black Caucus almost 60 percent of the Democratic Senate seats. If white Democrats make no gains in the Senate, their numbers would be down in single digits. That would drop white Democrats down to where Republicans were in the Senate in 1985.
African Americans will dominate the most senior ranks of the Democratic Party in the 2007 General Assembly. Three of the four most senior House Democrats will likely be black. In the Senate where members have less seniority with no member having been elected before 1990, 2007 may find that five of the nine Democrats who entered the chamber prior to 2000 are African American.
With African Americans likely to constitute a majority of the Democratic Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus can determine the identity of the Democratic leadership should it choose to flex its muscles. In the Senate, African Americans already hold two of the top Democratic posts with Macon’s Robert Brown serving as Minority Leader while Stone Mountain’s Gloria Butler is one of two Minority Whips.
In the House, two African Americans from Columbus hold high leadership posts. Carolyn Hugley is the Democratic Whip. Calvin Smyre, one of four representatives initially elected before1975 who is seeking reelection, remains as Democratic Caucus chair having had to relinquish the chairmanship of the powerful Rules Committee when Republicans took over the House last year. Nikki Randall from Macon is secretary of the Democratic Caucus so that African Americans hold three of the six top Democratic posts. If African Americans come to hold approximately 60 percent of the Democratic seats in the General Assembly they may expect to fill a majority of their party’s leadership posts.
As African Americans become the majority of the legislature’s Democratic Caucus, it will be important that they help steer a moderate course if their party is to develop the kind of record needed to achieve statewide success in Georgia. With moderates constituting a little more than 40 percent of Georgia’s electorate and conservatives being about as numerous, a winning Democratic strategy has to resonate positively with most moderates. Surveys consistently show that liberals make up less than a fifth of Georgia’s electorate so a leftward path will not lead to statewide victory.