Roy Barnes will announce today that he intends to become the first former Georgia governor in a half-century to reclaim the office after being turned out by voters.
The announcement is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at the Marietta Conference Center. Barnes, we’re told, will delay the actual start of his campaign until July, in order to wrap up some trial work and finish up as chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Barnes, 61, enters a field already occupied by three Democrats — Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, and David Poythress, former commander of the Georgia National Guard.
Six Republicans are in the contest.
Despite a huge financial advantage, Barnes was defeated in 2002 by Sonny Perdue, an upstart Republican state senator from middle Georgia. Both chambers of the Legislature quickly shifted to GOP hands, removing Democrats from control of the state Capitol for the first time since the mid-19th century.
Barnes settled into a law practice in new offices off the Marietta Square, and eschewed any suggestion of a return to the political field. A spokesman for the state GOP called Barnes “about as popular as Michael Moore in a VFW hall.”
But Republican infighting in the Capitol and inaction on a number of issues — transportation at the top of the list — created an opening for a return, and starting late last year, Barnes began indicating a change of heart.
“Yes, I’ve had a lot of the business folks come out here. Sometimes they just show up. And basically, what they say is, ‘Listen, you need to try this again, ‘” Barnes said from his law office in December.
In a series of speeches and appearances earlier this year, Barnes struck a populist tone, condemning the grasp of special interests on legislation passing through the Legislature.
For the last several weeks, the former governor had kept even close friends guessing. Word leaked that fund-raisers, pollsters and strategists — those who would be involved in the nuts-and-bolts of a campaign — had been interviewed. But even close friends said they were unsure of his path.
The former governor dropped a large hint at a party fund-raiser in May, when he assessed other Democrats already in the race:
“There’s a verse in the Old Testament that says the people perish where there is no vision. And I’m looking for vision. And in that category, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s not that they’re not good folks. It’s just — listen, we can do better.”
Polling in anticipation of a Barnes return indicates the former governor becomes the immediate favorite in the primary, though he also carries the burdens that caused voters to reject his bid for a second term — teachers who resented his attack on a tenure system, Confederate enthusiasts angered by his hauling down the ’56 state flag, and residents found themselves the path of a now- defunct Northern Arc.
But Barnes also brings to the race a well-known name that resonates with many voters, including African-Americans, an ability to raise cash, and — perhaps most important in a down economy — the ability to invest substantial dollars in his own campaign.
Barnes’ entry into the race is also likely to help fill out down-ballot contests. No Democrat has yet to enter the race for lieutenant governor. State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, a Barnes ally, has been mentioned as a possibility.
But to return to the Governor’s Mansion, Barnes will first have to win a primary. His fellow candidates have promised he’ll get no cake-walk — and have recommended that he remain an elder statesman for the party.
At that Democratic fund-raiser back in May, Porter, the House minority leader and newspaper publisher from Dublin, said Georgia hasn’t changed that much since 2002.
“You know, I appreciate Roy,” he said. “But, you know, the problems he had before are still there. As I travel the state, I’ve supported education, I’ve supported teachers, I’ve supported smaller classrooms. The things that were out there for him before are still there.”
Many governors, with their terms constitutionally limited, have attempted gubernatorial comebacks — E.D. Rivers, Marvin Griffin, Ellis Arnall, Carl Sanders, and Lester Maddox included.
But the last ex-governor to win re-election after being ousted by voters was Gene Talmadge — the namesake of Roy Eugene Barnes.
Talmadge was elected to two, two-year terms in the 1930s, and then a third term in 1940. But he lost a primary fight in 1942, the result of a backlash that came from his interference in the state university system.
Talmadge won re-election in 1946, but died before taking office.
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