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Georgia Democrats' golden opportunity

Despite its current woeful state, the future couldn't be brighter

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At first glance, the Democratic Party of Georgia appears to be in dire straits.

Besieged party Chairman Mike Berlon will formally step down this weekend after fellow Democrats, including Mayor Kasim Reed, called for his resignation. He had faced several ethics violations related to his law practice, which raised questions about his ability to lead the minority party. More importantly, he proved ineffective as a fundraiser and became the source of contention within the party.

It's not clear yet who will replacement Berlon. There's a lengthy list of possible candidates, but for now the DPG is a headless political organization in relative disrepair. The group's nearly broke, reporting a mere $30,734 in the bank according to its most recent filings. And there's an internal debate, sparked by Reed, over whether a Democrat should even challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in next year's gubernatorial election.

But the DPG — and the millions of Georgians pining for a progressive to hold at least one statewide elected office — shouldn't lose hope. How its members rebound in the coming weeks will define the party's future, particularly as its movers and shakers gear up for key U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in 2014. Despite the party's bleak outlook, demographic changes and under-the-radar efforts to build a political machine actually allow the party a chance to start anew and regain the kind of political momentum it's been missing for years.

First, party officials need to waste no time and revamp their statewide political strategy. That starts with finding the perfect party chairperson from a slate that's rumored to include: Dan Halpern, Reed's campaign chairman; another former Reed campaign chairman and President Barack Obama campaign strategist Tharon Johnson; former state Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin; former state Sen. Doug Stoner of Smyrna; one-time DPG chair and state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus; and current vice chair Nikema Williams, a Planned Parenthood Southeast vice president.

Whoever gets the nod, Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie says that the next chair must have a flawless reputation and be both "a manager and a rainmaker" — areas in which Berlon struggled.

"[He or she] can't have any ethical issues, personal issues, financial issues, or any professional issues," Gillespie tells CL. "They're going to have to raise money. If you can't raise money and be a good financial steward, there's going to be a big, big problem for the party."

What's more important, Gillespie says, is Georgia's demographic shift over the next decade toward becoming "increasingly less white." But she warns, contrary to popular thought, against party leaders assuming that the growing numbers of Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans will automatically benefit the party. It could help, sure, but it's uncertain that population trends alone will lead to Republicans losing the vice-like grip they've had on statewide politics since the early 2000s.

Those demographic changes might be a moot point if progressive leaders can't mobilize potential new voters. Longtime Democrats will continue to vote blue as they have for decades, but progressive leaders need to look past their faithful constituency to change voting patterns. Bryan Long, executive director of the left-leaning political advocacy group Better Georgia, says that starts with finding new ways to reach voters who are dismayed by traditional party politics.

"Politics used to be about a candidate that people would rally around in a party," he tells CL. "As modern politicking has changed, as the way we reach voters and talk to voters changed, Georgia was getting left further and further behind."

Unsatisfied with the DPG's overall ineffectiveness, several organizations are now working behind the scenes toward building a political infrastructure that could help elect more progressive lawmakers throughout Georgia. How will they do that? By focusing on key issues rather than party loyalty or personalities.

The upcoming push — inspired in part by an effort in Colorado named "Blueprint" that was pivotal in turning that state from red to blue — will unite a number of progressive nonprofit, advocacy, and fundraising groups. They'll work together, rather than in silos, and focus on issues to help drive voters to the polls rather than banking entirely on personalities — like possible future statewide candidates such as Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn, state Sen. Jason Carter of Decatur, and state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta.

The groups can combine resources to become more effective. If the plan works, it would improve voter mobilization efforts, lower costs, and give their collective efforts a shot in the arm. The unity among liberal organizations, one source close to the efforts says, is an "absolute critical step" in challenging their well-funded conservative opponents.

There's still a long way to go. First, they'll need cash. In addition, it's unclear how effective this progressive collaboration will be. Not everyone's sold just yet. It could take a while to convince skeptics that Democrats have a shot at ending more than a decade of Republican domination.

But if done right, such an effort could call to arms large swaths of disengaged voters and possibly turn Georgia's political tide. And maybe, just maybe, it can turn Georgia blue.

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