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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

M. Towery: Barnes got into a series of issues that became the perfect political storm, but he wasn't a bad gov., & he had a great record in many ways.

James Salzer does a fair and balanced story on Gov. Barnes in today's ajc:

Roy Barnes was a governor who acted like he never expected to serve a second term.

No problem was too big to tackle, no issue too complicated. From 1999 to 2003, Barnes was a governor in a hurry, the smartest guy at the Capitol, the man who could pass any bill on any subject over any opposition, often in record time.

When he saw a troubled education system, he formed a commission and passed major legislation over the objection of teachers within a year.

When he saw clogged Atlanta roads, he created a transportation super-agency, poured money into construction, backed a Northern Arc highway and commuter rail.

Faced with an economic boycott of the state, with little notice, he shoved through the Legislature a new state flag to replace the Confederate battle emblem version that critics considered racist.

He governed as a pragmatist, pushing National Rifle Association and business bills and cutting property taxes even while going hard after lenders who he said victimized elderly and uneducated borrowers.

But his ultra-aggressive, get-it-done-no-matter-the-cost style came at a price. He alienated so many people that he created a cadre of political enemies eager to poison any chance he had of winning re-election.

Now, eight years after losing a race that ushered in the first Republican administration since Reconstruction, the 62-year-old Barnes is seeking a second chance at a second term.

This time, he says, things will be different. The man dubbed “King Roy” for his imperial ways says he has learned to slow down and listen. He’s promising not to quickly try to solve every problem the state faces. But he will have to fight his nature to keep from trying.

“I am not going to be a laissez-faire governor, because there are too many issues we have to address,” Barnes said.

As longtime state Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, said, “He is by inclination someone who hits things dead on. Patience is not one of his virtues.”

Neither is modesty, Republican critics say.

“Hubris is the only disease that is always fatal in politics, and in the end, that is what brought Roy down,” said Rusty Paul, a former GOP lawmaker turned top Capitol lobbyist.

The millionaire country lawyer from south Cobb County easily won the Democratic nomination this year and now faces an uphill battle to beat former Congressman Nathan Deal in a year that looks ripe for Republican conquest.

Barnes has played the underdog role before.

In 1990, as a veteran state senator, he ran for governor against then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and House Appropriations Chairman Bubba McDonald. He billed himself as the conservative, anti-lottery candidate. He won the endorsement of the state’s largest anti-abortion group, but he got beaten soundly in the primary.

After that loss, he won election to the state House, where he became a favorite of House Speaker Tom Murphy and bided his time.

When Miller’s presumed successor, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, dropped out of the governor’s race in 1997, Barnes stepped in and beat Republican multimillionaire businessman Guy Millner the next year.

Barnes was replacing an activist governor. Miller created a lottery that paid for HOPE college scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs. He eliminated the state sales tax on groceries and passed some of the toughest criminal sentencing laws in the country.

But Miller also knew how far to push issues. He tried to change the state flag, then backed off when it was clear the opposition was too great. He readily conceded that transportation gridlock was a major dilemma. But he said Georgians weren’t ready to accept the tough solutions needed.

It’s human nature, Barnes acknowledges, for people to want to follow an activist governor with a less-aggressive one.

“But I was so panicked about the changing nature of the state, particularly in education and transportation, that I took it up,” he said.

In doing so, he made enemies who cost him re-election four years later.

He alienated the more than 100,000 Georgia teachers by pushing a school “reform” bill that included ending fair-dismissal hearing rights in hopes of getting rid of bad educators.

His bill mandated smaller class sizes and an accountability program that graded schools on test results. Some of what he backed was later included in the federal No Child Left Behind law. But it was fairly revolutionary stuff for Georgia.

“I think he was making some assumptions that were wrong because he didn’t slow down and listen to things,” said Ralph Noble, a Dalton middle school teacher who was president of the Georgia Association of Educators when Barnes was governor.

It was difficult for Barnes to slow down because he was an education policy wonk who actually had the power to make changes. Reporters covering the issue received regular e-mails from Barnes with attached stories or studies on reform efforts across the country.

Much of the business community, and many Republican lawmakers, supported his plans. But teachers, egged on by maverick Republican state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, pledged to oust him.

Ken Breeden, who ran the state’s technical colleges at the time, said, “He knew the political downside to doing what he did, but he knew it was right.”

Teachers weren’t the only ones he angered. He alienated many others by shoving a new flag through the Legislature in early 2001 with limited debate and no public vote. Flag connoisseurs dubbed the new banner the ugliest state flag in America. Opponents of the change picketed his events the rest of his term.

Other issues, such as Barnes’ highly partisan carving up of political districts brought still more anger.

Redistricting incensed Republicans — some of whom lost their seats — and rural Georgians who didn’t like having their small towns split into two or three legislative districts.

Barnes helped draw a set of political lines designed to keep his party in charge. That wasn’t particularly unusual. The Republican majority will likely do the same next year. But in 2002, Democrats had been in charge for 130 years and Republicans portrayed what they did as a symbol of a corrupt political machine that didn’t care about communities.

It wasn’t just Barnes’ issues that drew vitriol. It was his hands-on, CEO, always-in-control style that produced enmity.

He was among the first in state government to use a Blackberry wireless keypad, allowing him constant contact with officials and aides.

He deployed a computer program that let him track every vote lawmakers took on his legislative package, giving him the tool to quickly rank legislators. Critics say he rewarded loyalists for voting for his bills, something every governor does.

He also surrounded himself with people as tough as he was.

As his chief of staff, he brought in longtime political operative Bobby Kahn, whose hard-nosed, partisan style made him few friends.

Barnes in person is a back-slapping story-teller who can charm a crowd of business executives or farmers. Capitol regulars would never use that language to describe Kahn.

Barnes’ chief muscle in the General Assembly was Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, a political street-fighter from Augusta now serving 10 years in federal prison for mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. Barnes testified on Walker’s behalf at his 2005 trial. The former legislative boss was known for a brand of in-your-face, arm-twisting politics and prolific fundraising that turned off even some Democrats.

Barnes needed friends like Walker because the governor’s political machine was fueled by money.

In 1998, he had run against a Republican who could afford to fund his own campaign. In 2000, under the guise of campaign finance reform, he pushed through legislation that doubled the amount of money people, special interest political action committees and businesses could donate. That helped him build a political war chest of more than $20 million and allowed him to start advertising for re-election in spring 2002. By comparison, he’d raised $7.7 million through Sept. 30 this time around.

Taking in money in 2000-2002 from the usual political suspects — lobbyists, lawyers, people with state contracts, big businesses and political appointees — Barnes set a standard for political fundraising in Georgia that hasn’t been duplicated.

Many donors had good reason to give. For instance, shortly before the 2002 election, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 44 of Barnes’ 53 judicial appointees or their close associates had contributed to his campaign. Nine gave while the governor was considering their applications.

Barnes also set himself up that year by offering the first of the sales tax holidays for school clothes and supplies and by working to cut driver’s license lines.

He touted property tax breaks he’d started in 1999, something Republicans finally repealed last year in the midst of the recession.

Meanwhile, Republicans created a video depicting him as a giant rat wearing a crown.

Probably the most frequent Barnes critic at the time was Senate Republican leader Eric Johnson of Savannah, who said the governor’s style turned off Georgians. “By and large, Gov. Barnes was well-intentioned,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “It was not worth the trouble [for him] to sell education reform or the flag change to the state. It was easier to show that they could ram it down their throats. It was raw political power.”

Paul, the GOP lobbyist, blamed some of Barnes’ loss on political changes taking place in Georgia.

“We were right at the tipping point where the Democrats were losing control and knew they were losing control and the Republicans could see the promised land,” Paul said. “It was probably the most partisan era of modern Georgia politics.”

Emory University political scientist Merle Black said that, in the end, Perdue defeated Barnes by making the race a referendum on his term in office.

“I don’t think [Barnes’ ouster] had a lot to do with Perdue,” Black said. “I think they had a campaign in which they knew what they needed to carry and they knew where the weaknesses were.”

After his defeat, Barnes went back to practicing law full time — charging as much as $710 an hour — and making big money in real estate and other investments. His net worth, which he listed at $16.6 million this year, is up about $4 million since his last year in office.

Nearly eight years after losing to Perdue, Barnes began campaigning for another term by apologizing, over and over, to teachers and vowing to be a better listener. Some of his early TV commercials hit on those themes.

“I think generally, the policies were right, but I tried to take on too much and did not take the time to build the consensus and the basis for the change,” he said. “I just assumed everybody was as shocked as I was on the status of education ... and they weren’t.

“When I got in there and started pushing, there was a push back because they didn’t understand why I was doing it. That was my biggest mistake.”

Matt Towery, a former Republican lawmaker who runs an online media and polling firm, said Barnes has such an overpowering personality that “it got misconstrued as him being a king. He did not, in my judgment, operate like a king.

“He got into a series of issues that just became the perfect political storm, but I certainly don’t think you would say Roy Barnes was a bad governor,” Towery said. “He had a great record in many ways.”

If he’s elected for a second term, Barnes said, his agenda will be more focused, short and clear, and he will explain how he wants to improve schools and ease traffic congestion, two problems that remain.

“I am going to be kinder and gentler, to borrow a phrase from George Bush,” he said.


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