Sadie Fields called on Saturday to announce that, after 13 years of working for the cause, she would be taking “a leave of absence” from the leadership of the Georgia Christian Alliance.
The most influential and polarizing woman in state politics has taken herself out of the picture. At least temporarily.
“A time for change comes to us all,” she said in an e-mail sent to supporters that same day.
The timing of Fields’ decision was somehow appropriate. Her call came just before the beginning of a major Gwinnett County debate of Republican candidates for governor — organized by tea party activists, the newest insurgents to roil the GOP.
Just as Fields and her friends had done in the 1990s.
Only a few hours earlier, DuBose Porter, the Democratic candidate for governor, had rung up —the cell phone was busy that day — to talk about his declaration that he should be considered “pro-life” when it came to abortion.
Porter was bona-fide proof of the mark that Fields and other Christian conservatives have left on Georgia politics.
The former beauty queen from Homerville — she once reigned as Miss Gum Spirits of Turpentine — reached the apex of her influence at the state Capitol on the evening of March 31, 2004. Shortly after 6 p.m.
I saw it happen.
As head of what was then called the Georgia Christian Coalition, Fields was in charge of rolling up the votes of lawmakers for passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
The Senate had already approved the measure. But passage in the House was dicey, and depended that day on the ability of white religious conservatives to reach out to African-American Democrats.
A test ballot had gone badly. State Rep. Randal Mangham (D-Atlanta), a towering black lawyer and ordained clergyman, had not voted Fields’ way.
Mangham then made a second mistake. During a break, he wandered past Fields, who had stationed herself near the House clerk’s office where roll call votes were published.
Fields reached up and grabbed Mangham by the elbow. She lit into the lawmaker for a solid 15 minutes. When a final vote came, the measure passed with two votes to spare. Mangham had provided one of them.
Approval by voters in a statewide referendum that November was a foregone conclusion — never mind that Georgia already had a law on the books forbidding same-sex unions.
Republicans were thrilled. The vote was a high-water mark for religious conservatives in Georgia.
Though Fields, now 65, says she’ll remain active in conservative causes, her self-sidelining is certain to increase the growing fractionalization of the Christian conservative movement in Georgia.
“She was the unifying glue for social conservatives and religious conservatives,” said Rusty Paul, former chairman of the state GOP and — for many years — Fields’ landlord and office neighbor in north Fulton. “What you’re going to find is that the political movement is going to be singing with a lot of voices, off-key.”
Fields understood what issues were mutually beneficial to her cause and to Republicans who controlled the Capitol. And she knew exactly how hard she could push her friends before they began to push back, Paul said.
Fields agreed, in her own way. She and GOP lawmakers did not always see eye-to-eye, she admitted.
“That did not mean that we became enemies,” she said Wednesday, calling in from a vacation in Virginia. “It meant we would work together in those areas where we could find common ground. If that meant taking half of the pie this year, and coming back next year for the second half, I was very willing and content to do that.”
Other leaders in the anti-abortion movement have argued that such accommodating attitudes are a reason that their cause has stalled.
Hampered by a fall this winter, Fields was not at the Capitol much this year. She didn’t participate in the very public battle between Georgia Right to Life and House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) over a bill to make it a crime for physicians to perform abortions on women who have been “coerced” into the procedure.
The bill failed.
It was not a fight that Fields would have picked — at least not in the open. But with her withdrawal, Georgia Right to Life — led by its president, Dan Becker — becomes the dominant organization on the anti-abortion front. And GRTL has different, stricter demands.
For instance, while Fields may consider Porter to be “pro-life” — the Dublin lawmaker only approves of abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake — Georgia Right to Life does not.
GRTL only sanctions the procedure to save the life of the mother.
In Fields’ absence, restlessness isn’t likely to come just from the right.
Carol Porter is the wife of DuBose Porter and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Asked this week whether she was “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” Carol Porter picked none-of-the-above.
In an e-mail, she wrote that, in Georgia, the term “pro-life” has been used not to decrease abortions, but to increase votes. “I’m sorry, I’m not getting labeled on it. It’s a difficult issue for everybody in this state,” the Democratic candidate said.
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