Politics

Vive Le Roy?

When Roy Barnes lost his reelection bid as Georgia's Democratic governor in 2002, it was the surprise of the year. Now, the man his opponents once...
by | June 30, 2009

When Roy Barnes lost his reelection bid as Georgia's Democratic governor in 2002, it was the surprise of the year. Now, the man his opponents once called "King Roy" is looking for redemption.

Barnes didn't look vulnerable in 2002. Yet he lost to Republican Sonny Perdue by a margin of 51-to-46 percent. Now, with Perdue forced out by term limits, Barnes wants his old job back. His timing looks good. The GOP frontrunner, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, has backed out for health reasons, leaving Republicans with an unpredictable multi-candidate field.

Georgia tilts Republican in national politics, but three Democrats did win statewide in 2006, and Barack Obama lost Georgia by just 5 percent. Clearly, the right Democrat could win the statehouse. But is Barnes the right Democrat?

Barnes lost in part because 2002 was simply a terrible year for Georgia Democrats. But he also lost because of several controversies during his governorship, including a big one over education. Barnes pushed hard for an end to teacher tenure. In doing so, he alienated a key Democratic constituency. Teachers haven't forgotten.

That controversy reflects a key point about Barnes. Supporters think he is bold, critics think he is brash and everyone agrees he is a polarizing figure.

His stand on teacher tenure was part of a bigger push for an overhaul of education. His experiments in transportation policy--including creation of a superagency to make land use decisions for Atlanta--were equally ambitious and resented by many.

Whether Georgians want four more years of bold, brash leadership is an open question. Barnes seems to understand the need to convince Georgians that he has mellowed. In announcing his candidacy in June, he struck a conciliatory tone, saying he hadn't listened enough the last time.

Barnes isn't assured the Democratic nomination, but he is a heavy favorite. Three other credible Democrats remain in the field, but they might think twice about running now that Barnes is in the race.

Even the ex-governor's critics concede that Georgia politics will be more interesting with him back in the fold. "Barnes is one of the best campaigners we've ever had in this state," says Dick Pettys, editor of InsiderAdvantage Georgia. "He's immensely likable on the stump, whether you agree with him or not."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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