Dick Pettys, editor of InsiderAdvantage Georgia, writes:
It’s a crisp, football Friday night in south Georgia in 2002, and former state Sen. Sonny Perdue has been on the go since dawn. He’s now working a stadium for votes as the Coffee County Trojans prepare to take on the Lowndes County Vikings [I was at this game and thought as Sonny walked by: "I wonder if Roy is out politicking tonight."]
Teacher Linda Nugent from Camden County catches Perdue’s attention and tells him: “I don’t like anything Roy Barnes has done about education reform. I've taught 21 years and I want to say that all the teachers in Camden County are for you.”
Perdue smiles broadly and says, "Hang on. Help's on the way."
That was then. Perdue went on to defeat Barnes by 100,000-plus votes with the help of teachers and other groups angry with the Democratic governor. What about now, after Perdue has governed for four years?
He won’t get any help from flaggers – the hard core group still angry over the flag change Barnes engineered and which they expected Perdue to help them reverse. They’re still picketing him when they have the opportunity, but that’s probably a less significant bloc of votes now than four years ago.
Teachers are another matter. There are something like 125,000 of them, and you can more or less double that to include spouses, and that figure doesn’t even begin to count those others who might look to them for thoughts on how to vote.
Teachers generally are thought to vote Democratic and so it was a blow to Barnes four years ago when the Georgia Association of Educators decided to make no endorsement in the governor’s race.
This year, the GAE has re-engaged. It announced last week it is endorsing Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. It will wait until things sort themselves out to make an endorsement in the general election, but it doesn’t sound as if Perdue is in the running. Incoming GAE President Jeff Hubbard said, “The teachers of Georgia have learned the hard way. It really does matter who sits in the governor’s office.”
“The Marines have landed,” Taylor said of the endorsement, saying it could amount to the defining moment of the campaign.
That may be a little strong, but how teachers vote does matter - not only in the primary election but also in the general, where Perdue will face either Taylor or Secretary of State Cathy Cox.
If teachers in November aren’t with Perdue – the candidate who promised four years ago that “help is on the way” and the governor who described his priorities this year as “education, education, education” – that could be a problem.
Democratic strategists think the signal sent last week by the GAE's endorsement adds fuel to the fire they’ve been trying to kindle for four years with the argument that Perdue, in battling stagnant revenue for the first half of his term, cut over $1 billion from education funding.
“In terms of perception and momentum, this is big,” one said.
But it really remains to be seen. Almost everyone agrees that there is a fundamental difference between the way teachers now look at Perdue and the way they looked at Barnes four years ago. It’s not a matter of anger or resentment now.
“With Roy Barnes, it was about respect,” said GAE’s incoming president. “When people tried to offer advice, we were blown off.”
“It’s never been like or dislike with Gov. Perdue. It’s been about disappointment,” he said.
But does the GAE speak for all or event most teachers? The rival Professional Association of Georgia Educators is larger and doesn’t endorse, and PAGE spokesman Tim Callahan said he thinks the race is wide open among teachers.
“My sense is, there’s nothing like the anger there was during Barnes. Nothing even close. There’s some disappointment over low pay increases, high health premium jumps. Some view his support of reduced class sizes as an election-year conversion. But I don’t get a sense of anger or strong feeling against Gov. Perdue. I don’t feel a strong sense of support. So I think the race is pretty open.”
Perdue, meanwhile, said he thinks he’s doing okay with teachers. “I’m getting a very warm response from classroom teachers pro-actively and spontaneously as I travel around the state. I think they feel respect has been restored to the classrooms ... I think they feel empowered as professionals to do the tough job of education.”
We may not know until November how it all shakes out.