By every number, Attorney General Thurbert Baker should already have the edge in the 2010 Democratic race for governor.
He’s put 12 years into his current job as the state’s top lawyer. He’s survived three statewide elections.
Nearly 50 percent of the voters in Democratic primaries are now African-American, as is Baker. A centrist philosophy that emphasizes opposition to both crime and taxes should — at least on paper — allow Baker to build biracial and bipartisan support.
But with his formal candidacy more than a month old, Georgia’s attorney general finds himself in the curious position of having to justify himself.
There is, of course, the shadow of former Gov. Roy Barnes, who may or may not attempt a comeback. But the coolness that should worry Baker comes from within the African-American community.
Some black leaders have balked at the causes Baker has defended. They include Republican-generated legislation to require photo ID at the ballot box — which many African-Americans regarded as a voter-suppression effort.
More volatile was the case of Genarlow Wilson, who was sentenced to a mandatory 10 years in prison for consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl — an act that occurred when the young black man was 17. At one point, Baker’s office appealed a judge’s ruling that ordered Wilson’s release.
Wilson was freed in 2007, but many African-Americans saw the incident as another example of a criminal system unfairly focused on the imprisonment of black men.
“My job is to enforce the laws of the state of Georgia, as passed by the General Assembly,” Baker said. The vast majority of Georgians — whether black or white — understand that he’s not allowed to pick and choose his agenda, the attorney general said.
Baker acknowledges the need to improve both education and the economy. The startling increase in home mortgage foreclosures has yet to be addressed in Georgia, the attorney general pointed out in an interview.
As a commuter from Stone Mountain, Baker said he shares the cost that families pay for metro Atlanta’s traffic congestion. But when asked if he would support a sales tax to raise more cash for rail and road-building, as has been discussed in the last two sessions of the Legislature, the attorney general said no.
“The last thing we want to do is add to the burden of taxpayers,” he said.
Yet when Baker first announced for governor, the issue at the top of his agenda was not education, the economy or transportation. It was crime. “I don’t think that ever gets too far away from people’s minds,” he said.
Baker is a strong defender of capital punishment, though he thinks the state has been only penny-wise in its refusal to fund a system that offers defendants an adequate legal defense.
The attorney general also lists on his resume the role he played — as Gov. Zell Miller’s floor leader in the House — in passage of the state’s tough “two strikes and you’re out” law, which hands out life sentences to repeat criminals.
It is fair to say that, within certain segments of the African-American community, neither the death penalty nor mandatory sentences generate great popularity.
Last Thursday, Baker made time for lunch with state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. This week, Baker is scheduled to break bread with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the venerated civil rights leader.
In last year’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Jones and Lowery helped steer black votes away from DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, who is African-American, and toward Jim Martin, a white Atlanta attorney. Vernon Jones lost the primary in a runoff.
Emanuel Jones, who was deeply involved in the Wilson case, said he left his lunch with Baker “with mixed feelings.”
“I think the attorney general is banking on the African-American community supporting him because he’s an African-American. And I told him, don’t take that for granted,” the senator said. “You have to think of the civil rights community as a big part of our constituency, and I think there’s a big concern in the civil rights community.”
Baker has agreed to a discussion session with African-American state lawmakers later this month. The same courtesy will be offered to two other Democratic candidates currently in the race, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former state labor commissioner David Poythress.
Emanuel Jones said Baker hasn’t been ruled out. But neither has he been ruled in.
“We’re going to support the candidate that we feel has the best chance of winning in November. We’re not talking about a primary election. We’ve got to look past that,” the Decatur senator said.
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