The run-up to the election for governor next year is beginning to feel like a replay of 1998.
In that year, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a wise and progressive Democrat, prepared to run for governor. Another Democrat, state Rep. Roy Barnes, was set to go for lieutenant governor and succeed Howard. However, the early favorite for governor was Republican Attorney General Mike Bowers, a straight-arrow West Point grad who had brought a sense of integrity to the sometimes-corrupt Gold Dome.
From where I sat, a Bowers-Howard match would be the political fight of the century. The contest also would be a win-win affair for voters. Both candidates were at or near the top of everybody's good-guy list.
Then it happened. Election '98 blew up. Lt. Gov. Howard withdrew from the race for governor for personal reasons. Barnes stepped right in to fill the vacuum for the Democratic slot. Bowers confessed to a years-long affair with his secretary but stayed in the contest long enough to be defeated in the GOP primary by businessman Guy Millner. Barnes finally emerged from the knock-down, drag-out to become governor.
Four years later, Barnes ran a milquetoast re-election campaign in which he was defeated by a coalition of angry teachers (they wanted to keep tenure) and bubba flaggers (they wanted to keep the rebel cross on the state flag). Sonny Perdue promised to take care of both groups if he won. And, boy, did he take care of them! He forgot the promise to the flaggers and stripped billions in state funds from the schools. Maybe the teachers kept their tenure, but the state placed a backbreaking load of debts and mandates on local school districts.
Fast forward to 2009. The prelude sounds the same. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, the favorite to succeed Purdue, has suddenly dropped from the governor's race for health reasons, but oddly said he would seek re-election for lieutenant governor. Former Gov. Barnes began a statewide listening tour, showing up in such distant places as Forsyth and Glennville. He is expected to announce for governor shortly. Two other Democrats, Rep. Dubose Porter of Dublin, and former adjutant general David Poythress, have already announced. Mild-mannered Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker, an African American, has announced for governor, too.
On the Republican side, so many candidates have put out feelers that I can't keep count. A solid Republican candidate would seem a shoo-in to win. Despite Gov. Perdue's weak record and poor performance, Georgia is a very red state. A conservative with a decent reputation and passable moral standards (say, Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens) ought to waltz into the Capitol after weathering a mean primary with a dozen Republicans chasing the prize.
One wonders whether the GOP contenders will honor the 11th Commandment ("Thou shall not attack a fellow Republican") in a crowded field for a position that may soon be out of the elephants' reach. The demographics, they are a-changin' - with lightning speed.
In 2010, candidates will be contending with a factor that was barely on the horizon in 1998: the blogs. Before his announced withdrawal, Cagle canceled an appearance for Thursday before a peace-officers gathering in southeast Georgia. Word spread that something was afoot with the Republicans' favorite candidate. Hours before Cagle officially bowed out of the top race, the blogosphere brimmed over with rumors about the lieutenant governor - nasty rumors that went far beyond his health problems. One persistent report has it that Gov. Perdue pressured Cagle to sit out this governor's race to help the candidacy of Secretary of State Karen Handel, Perdue's apparent choice as a successor. Small wonder that Cagle wept when he announced he was quitting. He must have seen the blogs, too.
Among other things, he also was compared to the late Lt. Gov. Garland Byrd, who dropped out of the 1962 governor's race because of a heart attack. The moderate Democrat remained active for another four decades but never ran for public office again. His withdrawal cleared the way for state Sen. Carl Sanders to become governor and a model public official in the New South.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.