Democrats' new leader Jane Kidd hits the road
Democrats' new leader hits the road -- Whether it's to replenish party coffers or to make sure every county has a grass-roots Democratic presence, state Chairwoman Jane Kidd travels the state to rebuild party.
Seven weeks into her new, unpaid job as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, Jane Kidd's to-do list is already daunting.
There's a candidate, possibly sacrificial, to be found for a North Georgia congressional race in June, the first federal contest in the nation since the 2006 elections.
Women must be lured back to the fold, having been chased away by a brutal primary for governor last year between Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox. "I have talked to both of them. We haven't really gone over what happened," Kidd said.
Then there's a once-mighty party to be rebuilt from the ground up. Atrophied first by 130 years of success —- sitting governors never liked the trouble that came with close-to-the-ground networks —- then by four years of numbing defeat, Democratic organization has disappeared from nearly two dozen counties.
Most important is the fund-raising necessary simply to keep the lights on at the 10-person, $750,000-a-year state office. "We made the payroll this week," Kidd told a group of supporters in Atlanta recently. "But we can't do it again."
And so this former state lawmaker and daughter of a governor, when not making her daily Athens-to-Atlanta commute, has hit the road to Augusta, Macon, Rome and points in between —- searching out the checks that Republicans haven't already vacuumed up.
Kidd, elected in January, is the first leader of the state Democratic Party not to have been anointed by the state's top elected official. Her victory was in large part the result of a partnership with state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, an African-American who was elected first vice chairman of the party.
Kidd replaced Bobby Kahn, a Marietta attorney known for his sharp elbows and sharper tongue when it came to dealing with Republicans.
Kidd, by trade a public relations consultant, wants a kinder-but-still-firm face for the party, the better to appeal to independents. Upon the death of U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican, she issued a gracious statement of condolence: "While we sometimes disagreed with [him] on ideology and policy, we all agree that he was a man of principle and ideals."
But when Gov. Sonny Perdue decided to delay the special election to pick Norwood's replacement so that two Republican senators interested in the seat wouldn't have to resign during the session, Kidd was quick to denounce the decision as "political partisan maneuvering."
Supporters say Kidd was elected because of several strengths: her gender, her experience as a member of the Legislature and a candidate, her family pedigree, and her connection to small-town Georgia. "I can take her to Laurens County, I can take her to Buckhead, and everywhere in between," said House Minority Leader Dubose Porter (D-Dublin).
Amy Morton is a family therapist in Macon, an active Democrat and a blogger —- at georgiawomenvote.com. One day last month, Morton heard Kidd on the local talk radio station in Macon and caught her buttonholing Bibb County commissioners. "It seems like such a small thing, but it's not," Morton said.
Kidd, 54, may be the only person in Georgia who can say her interest in politics started with a stint in the Governor's Mansion —- the old one in Ansley Park. She's the daughter of Ernest Vandiver Jr., who was governor from 1959 to 1963 —- his political career ended by his decision not to oppose the integration of the University of Georgia. (He died in 2005.)
"It was at a time when Atlanta was different. We went to Spring Street [Elementary] School, which is where the puppet theater is now, and walked home and rode our bikes all over Atlanta," Kidd said. "It was a different Atlanta then, when you could do that. Mama's only rule was that we had to be home by five o'clock."
She can still remember Ku Klux Klan members protesting outside the mansion. She nearly drove them down with her bicycle. "I didn't have a real horn, but I pretended like I did and went beeep! beeep! and ran them off the sidewalk. They were just twirling around," she said.
After the Vandivers left the Governor's Mansion, they returned to their ancestral ground in Franklin County in northeast Georgia, where Kidd graduated from high school. From there, it was on to Queens College near Charlotte.
"That was Daddy's rule," Kidd said. "All the girls had to go to a girls' school for a year, and then we could go anywhere." Anywhere meant Athens and the University of Georgia. She graduated with a degree in journalism in 1975 and quickly married her high school sweetheart.
She and David Kidd are coming up on 33 years together. He's in property management, and they have two grown kids. Most of Jane Kidd's professional life has been spent doing public relations work for UGA and a variety of other universities.
Of three Vandiver offspring, Kidd was the only one to follow in the footsteps of her father —- and those of her great-uncle, U.S. Sen. Richard Russell.
She broke into politics with six years on the Lavonia City Council. After that came 1992 service as campaign manager to Democratic congressional candidate Don Johnson. He won —- though he lost the district two years later to an Augusta dentist named Charlie Norwood.
Kidd served a single term in the state House, representing Athens and Clarke County. Last year she abandoned that safe position to make a run for an open Senate seat. The Republican-controlled Legislature had packed the district with GOP voters. She lost.
Republicans weren't solely responsible for Kidd's defeat. When she began campaigning in next-door Walton County, newly added to the district, she found there wasn't a Democratic organization to show her around.
"We're really going to concentrate on building the grass-roots county parties, making sure they're energetic and active. There are about 20 counties in Georgia that don't have parties, so we're going to make sure every county has one," Kidd said.
Candidate quality is another area for Democratic improvement. Part of this is simply sticking with young political ingenues in election after election until they win. As Republicans have done.
But the most controversial part of Kidd's to-do list is to somehow discourage multiple Democratic candidates in the big matches —- like the contest in the 10th Congressional District in June, or the '08 race for U.S. Senate.
Expensive intraparty primaries, exemplified by last year's suicidal battle between Taylor and Cox, must be avoided in an era of shrinking contributions, Kidd said. "We're going to have to behave like adults. It's important for Democrats to have one qualified candidate. For the first time, we're going to have to say no," she said at last month's meeting in Atlanta.
Exactly how she'll do this, the new chairwoman is not sure. A wealthy party can wield its clout by threatening to deny funding to uncooperative candidates. But Democrats have very little money to withhold.
There is also the matter of how handpicking a single candidate will be greeted in a party divided neatly along racial lines.
"It's a challenge to find the right candidate and make sure no one feels like they're being excluded. That's what we're going to try to do," Kidd said.
While Democrats are still searching out candidates for June's congressional race, the new chairwoman asks to be judged by the party's performance in the '08 U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss.
"It would be wonderful if we could win. But it's critical that we run a great candidate and a great race. I do think it's an opportunity to win, because Chambliss has a record, and plenty that Democrats can talk about," Kidd said.
Jane Vandiver Kidd
Degree: Bachelor of arts in Journalism, University of Georgia
Occupation: Public relations specialist
Family status: Married 32 years to David Kidd; two grown children
Political experience: Six years on the Lavonia City Council; managed one congressional campaign; served one term in the state House; ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2006. Currently: Elected chairwoman of the state Democratic Party in January