Like a troop of doomed, out-numbered cavalry, 20 Democrats in the state Senate had gathered in a tight circle — a last-ditch attempt to stop a measure that could boost the standing of charter schools in Georgia.
A two-thirds vote by the 56-member Senate was required for the proposed constitutional amendment to be placed on the November ballot. House Democrats had already folded.
Gov. Nathan Deal, playing the role of Sitting Bull, picked off four Democrats. Perhaps with a promise of a future appointment, or maybe a banking bill – or even an appeal on the merits of the issue. Stranger things have happened. But it will be a while before we know the exact caliber of the ammunition used.
In any case, the massacre was complete. The charter school legislation passed. “That’s been the toughest pill to swallow this session. That’s one that got away from us,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a 38-year veteran and a former chairman of the state Democratic party – during its heyday.
The incident offered Democrats in the state Capitol a glimpse of the numeric irrelevancy that may await them on the other side of November, when they’ll run in new districts drawn last summer in by the Republican majority.
There is a distinct possibility that, in each chamber, Democratic numbers could fall below the one-third mark. This would allow Republicans to pass at will proposed constitutional amendments — the most difficult legislative victory to achieve, and the most powerful.
Some Democrats think the only force that might prevent Democrats from falling into that chasm is the near-mythic intervention of President Barack Obama, a.k.a. Deuce X. Machina.
Possibly, you were surprised by words uttered by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in an interview just before Obama dropped in for a bit of fundraising this month. The topic was whether Obama would mount a serious campaign effort in Georgia, where he earned 47 percent of the vote in 2008.
“I don’t know if the commitment is there to play big,” Reed said. “And that’s the only way for Georgia to be in play. You cannot pursue this in a small, modest way.”
From City Hall, that is simply a cold, hard calculation. One block away, in the state Capitol, it is a matter bordering on desperation.
An Obama that equals his 2008 performance in Georgia could draw enough voters to also preserve Democratic numbers in the Capitol at their current level, said Smyre, the former party chairman. “With Obama out of play, and a lackluster turnout, it could be a tsunami of sorts, politically,” he said.
The effort would cost money — and would be aimed primarily at the large number of unregistered African-American voters in the state. Smyre said he has talked about the prospect with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
“There’s no way to turn this state politically, and to execute — to register, and flush the vote, and have an effective get-out-the-vote campaign — without several million dollars. You’ve got to have the tools and the resources to do it,” Smyre said. “I think the national party has to put a stake in several Southern states rather than concede. It’s not good policy to concede a whole region of the country.”
Other Democrats in the Capitol put a similar value on a robust Obama campaign in Georgia. But they might disagree on the consequences, should it not happen.
The charter school measure passed by the Legislature would allow the state — if voters approve in November — to override local school boards and create public charter schools in those districts. A large majority of House Democrats opposed the measure, until House Republican leaders agreed to a guarantee that a local school system wouldn’t be forced — by itself — to bear the cost of a state-mandated school.
“The tea party has added a dynamic to the House that means the bright line test of 60 votes is really not the line anymore,” said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. “It’s a question of what the issue is.”
Some Democrats endorsed the charter school legislation. Some Republicans opposed it. “Our capacity to have influence is not simply a numbers game. The dynamic under the Gold Dome is not simply dictated by two parties, but by the factions within those parties,” Abrams said.
Senate Democrats are more inclined toward increased confrontation. What’s needed, said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, are a few more massacres.
“The charter school vote is a perfect example of the way Democrats get back. You now have 180 elected school boards that feel like they were abandoned by Republicans,” Carter said. “The only people returning calls, the only people standing with them were Democrats.”
If Democrats are to climb back into influence, it will be on the back of bad GOP policy, he said. Like last year’s illegal immigration bill, which deprived Georgia farmers of crucial labor, or Monday’s vote on a bill that would prevent all abortions after the 20th week — even if the fetus is declared non-viable, the lawmaker said.
“The Democrats are not that far away,” Carter said. “Nobody thinks this state is two-thirds Republican.”
Besides, Carter added, Democratic lawmakers have one other hope besides Obama. The man now likely to be the Republican nominee for president finished a distant second in Georgia. “There’s not a Republican candidate less in touch with Georgia than Mitt Romney,” the state senator said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider