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The King and why

By wielding power like a monarch, Roy Barnes has courted controversy and the enmity of Republicans. Has his modest progress been worth the political risk?


At the Georgia Press Association's Cracker Crumble party in March 2000, Gov. Roy Barnes playfully addressed the crowd wearing a crown, draped in a princely robe and holding a golden scepter. It was a suitable joke at the time. The annual event features campy comedy skits starring reporters, editors and politicians. Barnes got into the spirit of things.

One of his aides said it was "self-deprecating humor at its finest," which may be true, but it also served another purpose. It sent a message to critics who, behind his back, called him King Roy and griped about the heavy-handed way he wielded power during his first two legislative sessions as governor: He's heard the nickname and will go right on ruling as he sees fit.

No doubt: Many Georgians ranted at Barnes after he force-fed the state a new flag 10 months ago. No doubt: Politicians groaned when he shoved new political districts down the throats of the General Assembly and Georgia's congressional delegation.

But despite the flak, Barnes would flex his muscle again if given the opportunity. He sees decisively acting on controversial decisions as simply part of his job. That it suits his personality is a bonus.

"Do I apologize for saying that there are certain things that we need to do and we have to get about doing them and you need to make these decisions? I don't apologize for that," the 53-year-old, first-term governor says.

Barnes is more than unapologetic about the way he wields his power; he's comfortably immersed in it. He is the personification of a relaxed ruler when he reclines in his leather chair (throne-size, of course) behind the immense wood desk in his office on the second floor of the Capitol.

In front of Barnes is a slim, silver Toshiba laptop, a legal pad and a glass pipe tray half full of ash. The rich smell of pipe tobacco lingers. Behind him is a desk covered in paperwork, books containing the laws of Georgia and a studio photograph of his wife, Marie.

Many corporate offices are more regal than the governor's. And Barnes is practiced at being down-home, not imperial, in his demeanor. But it's clear that all the state's strings of power run through this room.

Guided by the belief that his decisions are the right ones, his actions -- even the most controversial ones -- are made confidently. It seems Barnes boldly takes on the state's most pressing problems head on -- education, air quality, water and transportation. And when it comes to getting his way in politics, Barnes almost always wins. Twice this year, he led a political tour de force that solidified his place as one of the state's shrewdest political operators.

"Well, I like everybody," he says, pounding the polished wood and inlay on his desk. "But at the same time, it is the duty and responsibility of those who hold public policy positions to do something, to actually make difficult and tough decisions."

But those tough decisions come with a price.

Because of the stealthy way he changed the flag, his take-no-prisoners approach to the redistricting session and his dictatorial style in general, Barnes' opponents in next year's gubernatorial race are hoping to make the King Roy persona his Achilles Heel.

"Stylistically, his vulnerability is his arrogance of power -- the way he and his administration knows better than everyone else," says Georgia Republican Party Executive Director Ralph Gonzalez.

Republicans, and even a few Democrats, call Barnes KGB, for King Gov. Barnes; there's also SOB, which, besides the obvious, stands for Supreme Omnipotent Being. Those, plus more colorful nicknames for Barnes, will be bandied about by his opponents from Valdosta to Dalton during campaign season.

Former state Republican Party chairman Chuck Clay says, "You can go from being strong leader to arrogant leader and if you're seen as arrogant leader, you will lose. There's no question voters will reject arrogances every time," he says.

There are some signs that Barnes is risking rejection.

Three polls conducted within the last six months put Barnes up against two of his opponents in the 2002 gubernatorial race. He garnered less than 50 percent of the respondents twice and just above 50 percent once.

Those numbers should be higher for an incumbent. "Any time you get below 45 percent, a candidate is in trouble," says Pat Sibley, president of a media buying company whose political clients usually are Republicans.

In a poll of 631 statewide registered voters conducted between June 30 and July 3 by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc., a non-partisan polling firm, Barnes led GOP gubernatorial candidate and state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko 47 percent to 36 percent, and Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne, another Republican candidate for governor, 53 percent to 28 percent.

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