Hyper-partisanship, the curse of Washington, is an infectious thing.
Yet even here, in the reddest of red states, you and I are catching a strong whiff of something different. For the second time in 100 days, a statewide campaign has made a massive jumble of Georgia’s traditional political alliances.
The fight over the Nov. 6 ballot issue on charter schools has fractured every demographic – men, women, black, white, Democrat, and Republican. Even tea partyers.
Proponents and opponents of the measure, which would allow the state to create public charter schools over the objections of local school systems, are each attempting to create a patchwork alliance – bipartisan and biracial – to breach the 50 percent mark.
A Journal-Constitution poll released over the weekend indicates the vote could be a near thing, and will stand independent of the race for president. Mitt Romney voters are split 44 to 44 percent on the charter school measure. Supporters of President Barack Obama are divided 43 to 42 percent.
In a close race, any one group becomes essential to the outcome. But in the charter schools contest, no group may be more essential to both sides than African-American Democrats. Who, quite ironically, may be reduced to irrelevance in the Republican-driven state Capitol after next month’s vote.
Competition has been fierce. Forums in African-American churches in metro Atlanta have been held nearly nonstop this month.
Many traditional black leaders are rallying voters in opposition. The Rev. Joe Lowery, the aging civil rights leader, was one of the first, with a speech to Georgia delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, has joined state School Superintendent John Barge, a Republican, in opposition to the charter school measure – but in terms that Barge is unlikely to endorse.
Jones has declared that enhancing the state’s power to create charter schools would result in a return to the white-only “segregation academies” that flourished in Georgia during the ‘50s and ‘60s, especially in rural portions of the state.
“It’s done intentionally. That’s the plan,” Jones, 53, said. Barriers to black children – a lack of transportation to and from classes, for instance – would be used to keep black students in traditional public schools.
On the opposite side of the issue is 33-year-old state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, an African-American from Cobb County and a charter school advocate who finds Jones’ attitude dated and offensive.
“It bothers me to hear my colleagues, people who represent civil rights organizations, make such a careless allegation,” said Morgan, whose husband David is a Cobb school board member and a professional lobbyist for a school choice organization.
“There’s a place to be concerned about segregated academies, perhaps outside of the metro Atlanta area,” she said. “But for those of us who are parents, who have to make decisions right now about where and how our kids will be educated, I think it is a tremendous distraction from the real issues in public education.”
Curt Thompson is a white Democratic state senator, but his north metro Atlanta district includes the original campus of Ivy Prep, a public charter school with a large African-American population.
Like Morgan, Thompson has allied himself with Gov. Nathan Deal, in favor of the charter school measure. And he thinks that those who tie race to the ballot issue are doing so in exactly the wrong way.
“The idea of local control has never really been the progressive argument. Proper oversight – to make sure that people aren’t being arbitrary and capricious with the rights of others – has essentially been the broader argument,” Thompson said. State administration is necessary to make sure that charter schools happen in the right way, he said.
“The locals are always the most resistant and most likely to trample on the rights of the few,” Thompson said.
The state Democratic party has placed itself in opposition to the charter school initiative. Michael Thurmond, a former vice-chairman of the party and state labor commissioner, is toeing the party line – but on non-racial grounds.
“If we can’t finance the existing public school system, it makes absolutely no sense to think we may be able to finance two systems,” said Thurmond, who is African-American.
But he recognizes that something different is afoot. During this summer’s campaign for the transportation sales tax, biracial and bipartisan teams confronted each other. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other black leaders joined with pro-business Republicans in support of the tax, while many other African-Americans created alliances with tea party conservatives and lined up against it.
“The TSPLOST may have been a one-night stand. Now you have to consider that this might be a long-term cohabitation,” Thurmond said.
A redrawing of legislative districts by Republicans could very well give the GOP a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature. If nothing else, Thurmond said, this year’s campaigns for the TSPLOST and charter schools should assuage any worries that Republicans will be able to pass constitutional amendments at will.
“You still have to get a majority of the popular vote,” he said. And that’s getting more and more complicated.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider