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The curious candidate

The case for sending Mr. Thurmond to Washington


What does a guy have to do around here to get a shot at running for the U.S. Senate?

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond clearly wants to run, but he continues to say he won't do it without the party's blessing -- and financial backing.

Every week, it seems, Democratic honchos are spurned by yet another dream candidate in the sweepstakes to replace retiring Zig Zag Miller. But so far they've been notably unenthusiastic about Thurmond, who's won two straight statewide races and national acclaim as labor commissioner.

Party leaders could make safer choices than the Clarke County native. On the other hand, Thurmond may offer just the right antidote for Democratic woes in Georgia.

"Mike would be an outstanding candidate; he is the best stump speaker in politics today in Georgia," says state House Speaker Pro Tem DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

A run by Thurmond might make political sense, too. His name at the top of the ticket would energize black voters, which could help other Democrats. That would be particularly beneficial in the 12th Congressional District, which includes parts of Augusta, Athens and Savannah.

At the same time, Thurmond has a strong record of fiscal responsibility, which could bring moderates and conservatives back into the fold. He guided Georgia's welfare reform and helms an agency with a $350 million annual budget. The Labor Department has won national awards for cutting fraud and waste while slashing employer taxes by a billion dollars.

And Thurmond has proven he can appeal across racial lines. He won three state House races in a majority-white district, then went on to become the first black politician elected to a statewide office without first being appointed by a governor. During the Republicans' 2002 election sweep, he easily won a return to office.

That says something about how capably Thurmond deals with the South's most divisive political issue: race. He just finished a book, Freedom: Georgia's Anti-Slavery Heritage, 1733 to 1865, and speaks on the subject with a rare eloquence that comes across as neither strident nor cloying.

Some party insiders mutter off the record that the party would be nuts to run a black man at the top of the ticket, especially after witnessing Sonny Perdue's racially charged victory last year.

"What I'm trying to do is kind of like the Matrix: create an alternative reality," Thurmond says. "Right now, race has been the key weapon to create this solid [Republican] South. The one thing that we can't do is to sit by and pretend like that is not taking place. When I talk about issues like tax cuts or helping workers ... I know that it's being interpreted through a racial prism. So rather than dealing with that facade, I just take it down and say, 'All right, let's just talk about it.'"

Thurmond, 50, says rural whites could warm to his personal story: He's the son of a cotton sharecropper, who didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 16.

They'll say, "'Oh yeah, I know that kind of black guy,'" he quips.

But making voters familiar with Thurmond's story will require money. And that means getting party leaders behind his candidacy.

So why haven't they invited him to the dance? The answer starts with the state Democratic chairman, Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus. Smyre is something of a keymaster for corporate donors outside Atlanta.

When Sanford Bishop, a fellow legislator from Columbus, prepared to run for Congress in 1992, he went to Smyre. Smyre has recounted that he helped Bishop raise money among South Georgia business leaders. Is it a coincidence that Bishop, once among South Georgia's most liberal state lawmakers, has acquired perhaps the most conservative, pro-business record among black Democrats in Congress?

Contrast that with Thurmond, who built his own political network as the architect of welfare reform and labor commissioner. He's something of an outsider and therefore a challenge to powerful interests.

"Michael has shown an independent streak and not kissed the appropriate rear ends," says one Democratic insider. "There are those who would criticize him for those same traits, that he is not interested in the team and too interested in promoting Michael."

Smyre didn't return CL's phone calls. But party insiders say he hasn't been enthusiastic about a Thurmond candidacy.

So you've got a classic fork in the road for Georgia Democrats. Much as the national party confronts a choice between the party establishment and populists like Howard Dean, Georgia Democrats are wandering through their own wilderness. Out of power for the first time in a century, they're learning that powerful interests aren't as ready to support the party's machine as in the past.

Thurmond's candidacy would represent a bold -- but risky -- move in the populist direction. On top of that risk, there's the race thing.

Even state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, a longtime Thurmond supporter, acknowledges that a black Senate nominee would be a tough sell outside metro Atlanta. That said, Brooks adds that the party ought not be scared that a Thurmond candidacy would associate the party too closely with minorities -- an unspoken fear of some rural, white legislators.

"The party is not getting too black," Brooks says. "The party needs to get blacker and browner and probably [needs] to bring some of those white men back into the party.

"[Republican strategist] Ralph Reed has done a great job of recognizing the fact that if Republicans are going to win ... they've got to motivate their base and be prepared to turn that vote out on Election Day," Brooks says. "On our side ... there seems to be a problem in conveying that message and making that message stick."

Thurmond seems the kind of man whose candidacy alone could do some much- needed motivating.

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