Former Gov. Roy Barnes made a brazen foray into Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s home turf of DeKalb County last week.
While the event didn’t rise to the level of a Sharks vs. Jets rumble, the Democratic race for governor could hinge on the incursion and what follows.
The former governor assembled a collection of nearly 30 current and former DeKalb leaders who back his return to the state Capitol. Most prominent among them was District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming.
The surface message was polite but unsubtle: The state’s top prosecutor does not have the support of his county’s top prosecutor — not in his run for governor.
The larger point was even blunter. Barnes intends to challenge Baker for the largest cache of Democratic votes in Georgia — the vast majority of them African-American — by cracking the attorney general’s base of support.
“Whoever is going to be the Democratic nominee is going to have to carry a significant number of DeKalb County voters,” said Sheriff Thomas Brown, a Baker supporter and close friend of the candidate. “You’re not going to win statewide unless you carry DeKalb County or you’re right there in the thick of it.”
The county’s influence this year could be even greater. DeKalb usually provides a 15 percent chunk of the July vote. But a primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson is likely to drive turnout even higher.
Last year, the Democratic congressman wrote Baker a $1,000 check for his campaign, but now says he’s neutral in the gubernatorial contest. One of Johnson’s rivals, DeKalb County Commissioner Connie Stokes, has sided with Barnes.
Baker was born in North Carolina, but DeKalb became the launch site for his political career — first as a state lawmaker. His wife, Catherine, just retired as a teacher for the DeKalb school system.
“His roots are staked down in DeKalb County,” Brown said — a fact that no doubt figured into the attorney general’s decision to run for governor. Baker kicked off his campaign this spring with a rally in Decatur.
“Thurbert will do very well in DeKalb,” Brown said.
So it is noteworthy that Barnes named DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May as his political director, placing May in charge of collecting endorsements and support from other elected officials.
May is African-American, and Baker lives in his district. May’s formula for winning DeKalb is simple. “You have to be visible, you have to have a presence, and you have to have people speaking on your behalf. It’s a big county,” he said.
Past history has required that Barnes’ pursuit of DeKalb votes in particular — and African-American votes in general — be conducted politely and respectfully.
“It’s not about beating someone down,” May said.
African-American politicians have not forgotten the gauntlet that U.S. Rep. John Lewis was forced to walk for his initial support of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election.
That year, black leaders became so gun-shy that they stayed out of the Democratic race for U.S. Senate between DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones and former state lawmaker Jim Martin — until the Rev. Joe Lowery blew the all-clear whistle.
The civil rights icon endorsed Martin as the man best equipped to challenge Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss.
In the runoff, Jones lost DeKalb — and the nomination. (Jones is now running against Johnson.)
What many forget is that the stampede of black leaders toward Barack Obama — and pressure directed at those who supported Clinton — didn’t begin until the Illinois senator proved his viability with a victory in the Iowa caucuses. (Ironically, unlike Lewis, Baker stuck with Clinton throughout the ‘08 primary.)
And so electability has become a central message of both the Barnes and Baker campaigns.
Supporters of the attorney general point out the general election dangers of Barnes’ serial apologies and Baker’s substantial resume.
Supporters of the former governor point to Barnes’ deep pockets, experience and well-known name. “For me, it does come down to we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the strongest candidate possible, not knowing who the Republican nominee is,” said Fleming, the DeKalb district attorney.
The campaign for DeKalb is sure to get hotter — as everyone of any influence is pressed to pick a side.
May, the DeKalb commissioner and Barnes political director, confirmed that Bishop Eddie Long, the influential pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, has agreed to host a fund-raiser for Barnes later this month. The church boasts 25,000 members.
Long has been placed on the Barnes campaign finance committee.
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