By Dan Lorentz
In high school they called him Johnny Mac. At his blog Beyond the Trestle he goes by Jmac. And in the pages of the Athens Banner-Herald, where he writes a weekly opinion column, his byline is Johnathan McGinty.
He’s been an assistant news editor for the Athens Banner-Herald, worked on many state and local political campaigns, co-edited the state’s most widely read Democratic blog and now runs his own public relations and fundraising shop for non-profits.
He seems to know a lot about Georgia politics, and that’s why I decided to ask him to explain my new hometown’s place in state-level politics.
Q. A liberal Democrat. From the Midwest. Accustomed to being represented by centrists in Congress. Contributes to Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial candidates because they have an even chance of winning. Expects forceful—and fairly liberal—local representation in the state legislature. Just moved to town. What would you tell a person with this background about what to expect from politics in Athens?
A. Confusion sums it up in one word.
Locally, you've reached an island of blue awash in a sea of red, and that's good and bad. It's good in that your local officials are progressive and willing to tackle big picture issues from a progressive perspective. For instance, the OneAthens initiative a few years back sparked a community-wide discussion on combating poverty, and local leaders pledged to launch a program aimed at providing health insurance coverage to low-income and uninsured citizens in the community (the momentum has stalled, as has the existence of necessary funding, but that's another story). It's bad in the sense that conservative officials who run the state have little incentive or desire to work with progressives in this community (and vice versa).
Statewide, though, there's ample room for frustration. Athens is represented by three members in the State House—Rep. Doug McKillip (D-Athens), Rep. Keith Heard (D-Athens) and Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville)—and they run the ideological spectrum.
McKillip is a solid progressive who is in his second term in Atlanta. He's emerged as a good champion for a state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit and is finding his voice up there.
Heard is a different story as he typically votes the right way, but has a tendency to also back non-progressive pieces of legislation (i.e. his recent vote to raise rates on Georgia Power customers to pre-pay the construction of nuclear power plants in the Augusta area, his willingness to relax restrictions on predatory lending, his opposition to Sunday sales of alcohol). Plus, he's got a tenuous residency issue as he keeps a house in Atlanta for his wife's business and his state work, and it's where he spends most of his time during the year thus opening him up to criticism from locals regarding representation.
Smith, of course, is a whole different animal. He's a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who, by sitting on the Appropriations committee, proves to be a thorn in the side of local progressives. He has routinely not supported local initiatives from Athens-Clarke County because they are at odds with his ideology. For Athens liberals, he's pretty much useless.
In the State Senate, Sen. Ralph Hudgens and Sen. Bill Cowsert are mixed.
Hudgens has been Public Enemy No. 1 for quite some time in this area for reasons that will be explained in the next answer, and he's a staunch social conservative.
Cowsert is a different story. He's a good team player for the GOP, but he's also very engaged in the local community. Most local officials have good working relationships with him, even if they disagree on the issues, and I've heard that he's very good at entering in dialogue with local progressives and sticking up for Athens-centric projects. Plus, he's the governor's floor leader in the State Senate, which gives him tremendous clout in Atlanta, and that's a good thing for the community (or should be).
If you're looking for hope at the state level, good luck. Democrats are on the verge of losing all constitutionally elected offices at the state level in 2010 as Georgia is one of a handful of states that has grown more conservative over the past 15 years. There's little fundraising infrastructure these days, and most candidates with a 'D' next to their name lose regardless of who they are or what they campaign on. The candidacy of Roy Barnes for governor, though, gives Democrats some hope as he still enjoys strong name recognition and is enjoying positive support among moderates and independents who long for the economic successes of the 1990s when he was governor.
Long term, the state is wired for Democratic success. Demographically, the urban areas are growing more diverse, and they're growing fast. These voters lean more Democratic than Republican, suggesting that Georgia could achieve swing state status in the next 10 years or so.
Q. In the state Senate, Athens is represented by Bill Cowsert and Ralph Hudgens. They’re both Republicans. If Athens is so liberal (is it?), how did that happen?
A. That's a good question we all want to know.
Athens traditionally has had just one state senator representing it. In 2005, however, Sen. Ralph Hudgens who lived in and represented neighboring Madison County, put forward a redistricting plan aimed at giving the community two state senators. In effect, it cut the community in half and lumped its progressive population with the more conservative rural areas.
This was something Athens officials had never asked for, though the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce –which, at the time, was run by a conservative president and operated a conservative PAC aimed at mobilizing business/Republican support in the area—did support Hudgens's efforts to do so. Jane Kidd, now the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, was then state representative for the area in the seat now held by McKillip and had already announced her intention to run for the recently vacated District 46 seat when it covered primarily Athens-Clarke County.
Once the redistricting went into place, Cowsert announced his intention to challenge her (Kidd had defeated Cowsert for the State House seat just two years earlier). There was ample speculation that this was an attempt by Cowsert's brother-in-law Brian Kemp, himself a state representative who had embarked on an ill-fated campaign for Agriculture Commissioner, to put a family member with similar views in the Georgia General Assembly (though I personally never really bought into that line of argument, despite how nonsensical and shameless the redistricting was).
District 47 then was expanded to gobble up portions of three local commission districts in Athens-Clarke County, while District 46 took the rest of the community and lumped it into all of Oconee County and most of Walton County. Both Kidd and, in 2008, Sherry Jackson, turned out significant Democratic voters in Athens-Clarke County only to lose by 10 points or more.
In actuality, rather than help Athens-Clarke County, it has the potential to hurt it. Hudgens has proven to be utterly useless for the community, and Cowsert is expected to seek another office down the road. Given the demographics of the district, it's plausible to concede that a more conservative Republican from Oconee County or Walton County would win the primary to replace Cowsert, trounce the Democrat in the race and then leave the urban center of Northeast Georgia and home of the state's flagship university without any representation in the State Senate.
It's fair to call the redistricting what it was—a shameless partisan attempt to pad the lead for Republicans in the State Senate while, at the same time, sticking a thumb in the eye of Athens progressives who they disagreed with.
Q. You said the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce supported dividing Athens into two Senate districts even though city officials never asked for that. Who was in charge of the chamber then?
A. Larry McKinney, who has since moved on to work in Daytona Beach for its chamber, and he was replaced by Doc Eldridge, the former mayor. Though it's unclear if it was McKinney's choosing or through a directive from chamber leadership, during his tenure that body became more openly hostile with the more progressive Athens-Clarke County Commission. It started a PAC that aimed to support 'business-friendly' candidates and causes, though all of its contested candidates would handily lose in 2006, and McKinney's openly combative style ultimately lost the chamber a lot of local support and ushered in his early exit. Though still strained, Eldridge is working to rebuild that relationship (though the recent flap over a supposed 'secret meeting' reopened some old wounds).
Q. In every community there’s a relatively small group of behind-the-scenes people who play an outsized role in local politics. Of this group, who are the key players in shaping how Athens is represented in the state legislature?
A. It's tough to say. If you're referring strictly to the election of candidates, there are a host of folks—really too many to name—who are influential Democratic donors, opinion makers and 'movers-and-shakers' in this community. That's the benefit, I suppose, of it being a progressive community.
For instance, a pair of former progressive officials still hold much sway in former mayor Gwen O'Looney and former state representative Louise McBee. There really isn't a progressive candidate seeking state or national office that doesn't sit down with the two of them before running to pick their brain, seek advice and try to win an endorsement.
Current Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mike Hamby has worked to get countless local and state officials elected, and he served as the interim executive director for the Democratic Party of Georgia when Jane Kidd was elected chair. Again, there are a host of others too.
Crafting policy is a bit different. A lot of folks, from both sides of the aisle, have a hand in policy matters. Rep. Bob Smith sits on the Appropriations committee, and that gives him a lot of sway over pieces of legislation. Oconee County Chairman Melvin Davis is a vice chair of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, which has grown into a very influential advocacy organization for local communities, regardless of ideological leanings. Lucy Rowland, a member of the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission, has a great policy mind for land use issues, preservation issues, etc. The late E.H. Culpepper did a ton of things behind the scenes, such as being an instrumental person in crafting the vision for the 'Brain Train' commuter rail project that would connect Atlanta to Athens-Clarke County.
Q. To many folks who live in Athens, U.S. Congressman Paul Broun is an embarrassment. How did such a goof get elected? Voters in Athens must make up just a small part of the 10th Congressional District. Who are the other voters?
A. Ah yes, that question.
Rep. Paul Broun, quite simply, got elected in 2007 because a good-sized contingent of Athens progressives voted for him ... which, given his penchant for calling the president a Marxist dictator, is somewhat ironic.
In 2007, Rep. Charlie Norwood passed away, thus resulting in a non-partisan, special election for that seat. If there was ever a time for a progressive to score an upset, it would be in a low-turnout, non-partisan race like this one. Early on, progressives in the district rallied around James Marlowe who had connections to Lincolnton (where his father had served as mayor), and he ran on a smart policy platform built around rebuilding the dwindling economic base around 'Green Jobs' and the like. He raised a good bit of cash and, given the sheer volume of candidates in the race, he was the favorite to land in a runoff with Republican State Sen. Jim Whitehead from Augusta.
The other candidates descended into a near-comical parade of the insane, and Broun was an almost forgotten member of that group. Bill Greene had earned the backing of the anti-immigration 'Minutemen' group, and he figured to be the other Republican with a serious chance in the race based on his ability to appeal to the far right elements of the GOP base.
The election told us a different story. Broun, who had been informally campaigning for the seat since before Norwood had passed away, locked up decent support in the rural areas of the district. He stacked up massive signs all along the country roads throughout Northeast Georgia, thus boosting his name recognition in a crowded race with little information available to voters. He was aided by surprisingly low turnout among Democrats in Athens-Clarke County, and the defection of African-American voters in Augusta-Richmond County and its surrounding areas to two African-American candidates. Further boosting Broun's candidacy was his family legacy as his father, Paul Broun Sr., was a very popular 'Yellow Dog' Democrat who represted Athens-Clarke County for more than two decades in the Georgia General Assembly (in fact, I heard numerous folks tell me they were so glad that 'Senior' was back into politics ... even though he had passed away a few years earlier).
Whitehead cruised to 40 percent or so, while Broun edged Marlowe for second place by 198 votes (something which depresses me greatly to this day).
Now, Whitehead was also kind of a hothead. And, to burnish his Republican credentials, he regularly poormouthed liberal Athens-Clarke County including a now infamous joke about bombing everything in the community except Sanford Stadium. He criticized academic liberals at the University of Georgia. He refused to debate Broun and wouldn't visit Athens-Clarke County to save his life. He made some crack about terrorists coming over from Mexico.
This, understandably, infuriated Athenians of all stripes. And Broun, to his credit, took advantage as he positioned himself as someone who was from the community, would fight for us on the national stage and, even though he might disagree with our views, he'd always have time for us. And it worked to some extent. The Athens Banner-Herald endorsed Broun solely for those reasons. Pete McCommons from Flagpole endorsed Broun and encouraged liberals from the community to go vote for him. Democrats wrote letters to the editors of both papers blasting Whitehead for anti-Athens comments.
Of course, all this was political absurdity because Whitehead, arguably aloof and easily more conservative than area voters, also knew how being a representative worked (i.e. you have to bring home the bacon). Broun, on the other hand, was someone who had campaigned on a platform of Medicare and Social Security being unconstitutional and swore off earmarks (which, for a community that lives and dies by the prosperity of publicly-funded university, was not a good thing). The Broun that sought election in 2007 was just as conservative as the one in 2009 who thinks Americorps is a secret plot aimed at installing a Marxist Gestapo, it's just that he happened to be running against someone who said mean things about our town.
So, the same progressive community that gave him 1,474 votes in the first election gave him 5,122 the next time around. He crushed Whitehead by more than 4,400 votes in Athens-Clarke County and won the election by a bare 394 votes.
From there on out, with a district that is roughly 65-35 Republican, Broun is virtually assured of re-election (particularly after staving off a primary challenge from Augusta in 2008).
Q. In 2010, voters in Athens will help decide five state legislative races. From a progressive perspective, what will be the most important and interesting races?
A. Three are out of pocket right off the bat, but we'll take a quick look at them.
Rep. Bob Smith is a lock given the majority of the district lies within Oconee County, though that isn't to say he couldn't be vulnerable to a primary challenge. While that won't happen given Smith's influential status on various House committees, he has burned some bridges in the local community which would make it interesting to see what could happen. A centrist Republican might garner lots of support in Athens-Clarke County, which could impact that race. Again, I don't see anyone desiring a challenge though.
Rep. Doug McKillip is a safe bet. He's regarded as one of the top young progressives in the Georgia House of Representatives, and that's his seat as long as he wants it.
Sen. Bill Cowsert has survived a pair of strong challenges, as well as a primary challenge on the right, and he's locked in for the long haul too. I'd venture to say that some Democrat will challenge him, but it will be hard to garner more than 45 percent against him.
Two races, however, should be in play in 2010.
State Senate District 47 will be interesting, even if it lacks a Democratic challenger. With Sen. Ralph Hudgens seeking the GOP nomination for Insurance Commissioner, the Republican side has filled up rapidly. One candidate that has peaked the curiosity of moderates and progressives is Braselton Mayor Pat Graham. She's well regarded as a competent manager who approaches policies and issues from a pragmatic, albeit conservative perspective. Arguably, anything is better than Hudgens—or so we think—but Graham might be able to attract some crossover Democratic support (particularly if the governor's race has thinned out by then).
State House 114 figures to be different this time around too. Rep. Keith Heard is rumored to be interested in seeking the Democratic nomination for Insurance Commissioner, which would make that an open seat for the first time in 10 years or so. Regardless, there have been ample rumblings that Heard might face a primary challenge. He's fallen out of favor with a lot of local progressives for a variety of reasons, ranging from basic representative issues to his willingness to crossover and vote with Republicans on things like Senate Bill 31 (which raised Georgia Power consumer rates to pre-pay profit for the company's shareholders). He's always butted heads with the Athens-Clarke County Commission, including a now famous public argument with various leaders in which he assigned the blame for the community's poverty problem with them, and I think a challenge from the left would be interesting.
That district is viewed as a safe Democratic seat, and it has a large number of African-American voters, which have sent both him and current Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond to the Gold Dome over the past 20 years. However, the rise of the progressives in places like Boulevard, Normaltown and Cobbham suggest it might resemble a dynamic that's closer to local political realities. In that case, it would be all about voter turnout and the effectiveness of the challenger to mobilize that emerging base of support.
Those might be the most entertaining electorally speaking, but from a policy perspective I still argue it begins and ends with Cowsert. He's got the governor's ear, is the most receptive conservative to the progressive community among the local delegation and, if he went to bat for something (like, say, a pilot program for circuit breaker property taxes), it stands a good chance of getting through.
___ ___ ___
This interview was conducted via email. The text published here is an ever so slightly edited version of the actual exchange.
Image credit: from Beyond the Trestle blog