People talk about his girth, but a man this important should be big. After all, his Jovian gravity is sufficient to make or shatter political ambitions. Around him orbits an entire city.
From his offices on the 22nd floor of the Equitable building, he surveys an Atlanta that is indubitably his -- even though, at 64, his only current title is "private citizen."
A bold headline on a framed newspaper page from Oct. 17, 1973, explains his municipal proprietorship: "90 Percent of Black Vote Puts Jackson in Historic Role Here."
Maynard Jackson understands a few things when it comes to voting. It's in his genes, literally. Knowing how to make the numbers and compute the odds got him elected to the most powerful post in, hell, let's tell the truth, Georgia and maybe the Southeast. Governors and members of Congress and state legislators and each and every local official need Jackson's imprimatur, although it's been nine years since he resided in Atlanta's mayor's office.
Jackson's historic groundbreaking victory 29 years ago is what turned Atlanta end over end. Every politician in the city since then has either embraced him or trembled at the thought that he'd be indifferent to their cause.
It's all about votes.
"Americans' attitudes toward the election process are far worse than anyone had expected," says Jackson, referring to a 2001 poll by the Democratic National Committee. "It was shocking. The degree of disillusionment among African-Americans was double that of white voters.
"Especially among young people, black and white, the feeling was strong that voting didn't matter," says Jackson, those twinkling eyes turning into megawatt lasers as his whole presence -- and it is a considerable presence -- rises from his chair in distress and anger at democracy's decline.
A few paragraphs from now, I'm going to enlighten you about a "non-partisan" effort that's being spearheaded by Jackson. OK, OK, I know tens of thousand of my loyal readers are rolling on the ground, laughing at the thought of Jackson as "non-partisan." We are, after all, talking about a Democratic Party legend.
Here's what you need to keep in mind. Big voter turnouts favor Democrats. It's a paradox, but those with the most to gain by voting -- meaning those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those who are marginalized by race, religion, sex or sexual preference, those whose lives are mere ciphers for corporate manipulators -- are the most likely to sit home on Election Day.
These people are overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic. And, please, there's no truth to the fables spread by Republicans. It's the GOP that wants to intrude into your personal life. Government gets no smaller under Republicans -- it's just that tax money is plucked from the pockets of the little guys and given to the wealthiest citizens and corporations. "Conservative values" have been perverted to mean the antithesis of the principles of the Founding Fathers and our great historic leaders.
In the last 20 years, the number of people who favor a candidate has become far less important than the amount of money in a wannabe's pocket. Democracy has been mutated into a loathsome Dollarocracy.
Jimmy Carter, speaking to Emory University faculty and students two weeks ago, underscored that point by stating, with obvious irony, that the United States would be ineligible for Carter Center vote monitoring. The reason is that most Americans don't have access to the political process; our government has been usurped and now only the mega-wealthy or those approved by the super-rich can hope to attain major political office.
What's also true is that beginning with the Republicans' infamous 1990s "Contract on America" (yes, I mean "on" as in Godfather lingo, not "with"), the GOP adopted a series of strategies to deter voter turnout. These included tactics such as co-opting Democratic issues that forced the Dems farther to the right and blurred distinctions between the parties. Voters would say, "Why bother?"
The absolute prostitution of the electoral process by Big Money -- with both parties vying to be the most shameless in their whoring -- increased voter apathy. The Democrats, digging their own graves and then jumping in, didn't see that the crumbling foundations of the electoral process would bury them first since they need the big masses of voters to win.
When merely poisoning democracy proved too slow for the Bushies and the ultra-right zealots at the helm of the GOP, they two years ago gave us a taste of what's to come. In Florida, Jeb Bush and the horrible, horrible Katherine Harris wrongfully (and if there was any justice, feloniously) deprived thousands of qualified black voters of their franchise.
Now we see another variation on the theme. With cynicism of unsurpassed stench, George W. Bush is attempting to define his warmongering as "patriotic" and declare as treasonous all dissent. With few candidates warming to the idea of being branded a traitor, most Americans are left with the choice of, well, war or war. They'll probably sit it out, handing elections to Republicans.
Ignored will be the real issues that Bush doesn't want Americans to see -- problems far more devastating to the nation than Saddam Hussein. Cancers such as the number of unemployed citizens soaring 35 percent since Bush seized power. Or that a federal surplus of $281 billion has been turned into a vast and growing deficit of $175 billion -- money your children will have to pay while the wealthiest Americans reap tax windfalls. Or that the already shameful (for the world's richest nation) number of Americans without health insurance has increased by 1.4 million to about 41 million.
Are you better off than two years ago? Chances are that if you don't warm a seat in a corporate boardroom, you're not.
Maynard Jackson understands this. He's also aware that during the 1990s, the once solid Democratic black vote had been fractured, and by 1996 as many as 40 percent of African-Americans expressed dismay at the Democratic Party.
The GOP -- thanks to Jeb Bush and, more recently, to the implicitly racist ads by Republicans that never show a minority or to the even more overt racism of Confederate flags adorning yard signs for gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue -- is driving the black vote back into the "D" column.
"My grandpa was a Republican," Jackson says with a smile. "Almost all African-Americans were in those days."
In the 1940s, that grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, along with attorney A.T. Walden, formed the Atlanta Negro Voters League with the rallying cry of "bucks, ballots and books."
"It was the powerhouse," Jackson says. "They put out a ticket before each election, and 99 percent of the African-American voters relied on them because their leadership was held in such high esteem."
With those memories never distant, Jackson has long been involved in voter projects. He headed an effort for the Democratic National Committee, but resigned to take up a new banner, the American Voters League.
The AVL is the purportedly non-partisan venture I mentioned. It's also nonprofit, and the ex-mayor is actively looking for support (www.americanvotersleague.org).
Targeting the black belt -- Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas -- Jackson says the goal is to reach voters with a new message.
"In the past, we've reminded people of the sacrifices of others that have made voting possible," Jackson says. That appeal to guilt is "legitimate and sound, and when I hear people died and bled, that they marched in marches and were attacked for wanting to vote, that resonates with me. But it doesn't work with most people, especially young people."
Jackson's gameplan is an appeal to self- interest. "When people say, 'I don't see what voting gets me,' we'll respond by saying, 'No job? No future? Didn't vote? Then it's your fault.'"
The AVL is taking this message to young voters on their own turf. Aided by Jackson's nephew, marketing executive Karl Holbrook Carter, the idea is to go "guerrilla." Holbrook's GTM Soul Underground gained "guerrilla" experience when it won a contract to use tobacco settlement money to reach youth. Teams of young people went to clubs talking to their peers about the dangers of smoking.
Says Jackson: "Our message is: 'Vote if you want better jobs, better housing, better health care.'"
Of course, as I said, all of this is "non- partisan." But those issues do seem distinctly Democratic. It's sort of hard to imagine the GOP version of AVL -- teams of well-tailored neocons going out and touting: "Vote if you want more war, more corporate corruption, a sick economy."
John Sugg says: "Vote for the Whig Party candidate for Congress in Georgia's 7th District -- me." Contact Sugg at 404-614-1241 or at email@example.com.