Bill Shipp describes Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond as "perhaps the smartest politician in the Georgia Democratic Party."
"Democratic candidates must treat Sen. (Barack) Obama just like any other candidate. They must not treat him differently because he is an African American."
That bit of guidance for white Democratic presidential candidates comes from perhaps the smartest politician in the Georgia Democratic Party - Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, the only black candidate to win statewide office without first being appointed.
[I]f Obama insists on running as the Black Candidate, he's a dead duck, Thurmond thinks.
"The last frontier for black candidates is being able to win in white jurisdictions. When I run for election, I tell my audiences, regardless of their race, 'Don't vote for me because I'm an African American, and don't vote against me because I'm an African American. Vote for what I stand for,' " Thurmond said.
The Georgia official knows how to avoid the race trap.
In his three contests for labor commissioner, Thurmond has routed a half-dozen white Democratic and Republican contenders.
In 2002, he won re-election with 51 percent of the vote and with blacks comprising 21 percent of the turnout. Last year, he captured 55 percent of the ballots, as black representation in the election hit a near-record-high 24 percent, according to official election numbers.
First elected to the state House in 1986 from Clarke County, Thurmond was, at one time, the only black lawmaker from a white-majority district. He also was the first black legislator since Reconstruction elected from Clarke County. As Thurmond racked up one political achievement after another, he watched his Democratic Party collapse around him, losing the governor's office, control of the legislature and both U.S. Senate seats. He saw his Democratic mentor Gov. Zell Miller throw in with the Republicans and endorse President Bush and Gov. Sonny Perdue. (In the mid-1990s, Miller appointed Thurmond to direct his welfare-reform program.)
On the campaign trail, Thurmond joked with white audiences about being blood kin to the late ultra-conservative white Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In each of his elections for commissioner, Mike Thurmond swept several mountain counties where only a handful of black voters reside. To be sure, the labor commissioner election is a down-ballot, low-profile contest that draws only a fraction of the attention devoted to, say, a presidential primary or a governor's race. Still, Thurmond's success in reducing the race factor in an Old South state is remarkable.
At the recent contentious Georgia Democratic Committee meeting, Thurmond worked feverishly behind the scenes to defeat labor union-backed Michael Berlon for party chair. Thurmond feared the controversial Berlon would marginalize the party's importance. Instead of Berlon, Democrats finally turned to former state Rep. Jane Kidd of Athens as their chairwoman, and they installed Thurmond as first vice chair.
Thurmond is expected to play a pivotal role in vetting Democratic challengers to Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss next year. How Thurmond reacts to the anticipated Senate candidacy of DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, also an black, might be a key to whether Democrats have any hope of retaking the post captured by Chambliss from Max Cleland in 2002.