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The party's over

But will Republicans be able to solve the big problems facing Georgia?

by and

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When Sonny Perdue triumphantly took the stage at a Buckhead hotel on the evening of his re-election slam-dunk, he made a promise that offered hope to some and woe to others.

"We are doing things for the next generation," Perdue proclaimed to whoops from the Republican stalwarts who saw their dominance of state government broaden and deepen as the Nov. 7 vote tallies chased each other across TV screens.

The next evening, before speaking at Creative Loafing's Political Party, Democratic Sen.-elect Nan Orrock commented that the younger generation "will pay, will be the victims, for what [the Republicans] are doing in Georgia."

Last week's victory cheers from Georgia Republicans and the dire warnings of Democrats had one thing in common: Both sides were acknowledging that, for now, the fate of the state rests firmly in the hands of Republicans.

For decades, they were the folks in state government who had to say they belonged to a "party of ideas" because they didn't have much of anything else on their side. They certainly didn't have the power to implement those ideas. They didn't even have big campaign contributions.

But now after four years in the governor's mansion, two years controlling both chambers in the General Assembly, and a thumpin' under their belts every bit as impressive as the one congressional Democrats delivered Nov. 7 to congressional Republicans, Georgia's GOP leaders still have their ideas. And they can reasonably argue that they have the mandate to implement them.

The question is whether the Grand Ol' Party will, in Perdue's words, do things for the next generation -- or to it?

It's not an academic question. While far from a basket case, Georgia faces deep, pressing problems. If those problems aren't addressed soon, the state could become less competitive at attracting new businesses and could be a far less pleasant place to live for many years to come. And it's hard to see right now how the ideas that have been pushed until now by most Georgia Republicans are the ideas that are likely to solve Georgia's problems.

Take transportation, for example. Atlanta's three-headed monster of sprawl, congestion and air pollution is a creature born largely out of the region's dependence on the automobile. And in recent years that creature has loomed as an increasing threat to the metro area's quality of life, as well as to the state's economy.

In the waning days of their leadership, Democrats tried to tackle congestion. Under Gov. Roy Barnes, the state began seeding bus systems in the suburbs, which have turned out to be hugely popular. Before Perdue beat him in the 2002 election, Barnes had gotten plans started for a state-subsidized commuter-rail system, and he'd taken early steps toward coordinating the region's transit agencies under one authority.

Perdue, consistent with his careful style, has approached transportation more conservatively. Although he hasn't killed outright a proposed commuter line from Atlanta south to Lovejoy, he's shown a bit less enthusiasm for rail. He even signed legislation last spring designed to undermine its funding.

Most of the governor's transportation efforts have been oriented toward finding money to speed up metro road construction -- much like what previous Georgia governors did when people (and campaign contributors) clamored for more highways.

But others in Perdue's party are pushing for a more radical approach to transportation. Transit, they say, isn't an efficient way to move people around a metro area as spread out as Atlanta. Essentially, they argue, we need to pave our way out of this mess -- big time.

A grand edition of that approach will be on display this week in a proposal unveiled by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank influential among the state's Republicans. The proposal, obtained by CL (see story, page 17), says Atlanta's congestion can best be solved with more than $25 billion in privatized road projects, headlined by a double-deck tunnel linking Georgia 400 with I-20, and a partly above-ground, partly underground network of toll truck-ways.

Perdue's faced with a clear choice between two very different approaches. But, even for a conservative Republican, it's not as easy a choice as it may seem. On one hand, suburban developers, road-builders and conservative policy wonks -- all with close ties to GOP politicians -- are pushing for a classically Republican-sounding game-plan: roads, privatization, roads, roads and more roads.

On the other hand, Democrats and greenies aren't the only backers of "smart growth," commuter rail and other transit options. Polls of metro suburbanites show a strong desire for alternatives to automobiles. Many metro business leaders have voiced support for transit, as well as linking land-use planning to transportation. And years of study by transportation planners show that commuter rail lines would take tens of thousands of cars off metro highways.

The political leader who casts aside such practical solutions for a multibillion-dollar scheme involving tunnels and toll roads risks finding himself, or his party, about as popular as, say, a president who got us into a disastrous war in a faraway land.

Perdue and his fellow Republicans face similar binds on a series of challenging issues: How can a party so heavily backed by the development industry effectively tackle the state's looming water crisis? Can lawmakers really bank on market forces to extend health insurance to more Georgians? And how will Republicans improve Georgia's schools, make education funding more equitable, and at the same time fulfill promises to cut income and property taxes?

There is a danger to Georgia -- and to Republicans -- that the GOP, facing a weak and demoralized opposition, will rush headlong into radical ideas without vetting them carefully.

It's true that Democrats held absolute sway in the state for more than a century. But, at least since the Civil Rights Movement, there were many factions within the party, which built in some modest checks and balances. The political dialogue among the fractious Democrats was vigorous, often brutal -- basically a surrogate for a two-party match-up.

Certainly there are differences now among the Republicans, between religious conservatives and economic conservatives, for example. In large part, however, Georgia Republicans came to power not as aliens arriving from another planet -- but merely by the right wing of the Democratic Party cracking off. Many of the GOP's leaders are in fact ex-Democrats.

While the old one-party Georgia of the Democrats embraced almost all political points of view, however, the new Republican Georgia encompasses a far narrower spectrum.

So what does that mean for Georgia's serious and deeply divisive issues? How long can unbridled growth in metro Atlanta continue before Lake Lanier turns into the world's largest mud-wrestling pit? Is there any real solution to kicking education out of its decades-long stagnation? Do we spend billions on privatized toll roads? Will health care become the most luxurious of luxury items? And whose pockets is the taxman going to pick to pay for what the state needs?

"You'll see undiluted Republican policies" in the next few years, predicts Georgia State University political scientist David Franklin.

Those policies would face more scrutiny if there were a strong opposition. But the state party's dismal showing in last week's election could hardly be overstated.

The best news for Georgia's Democrats may be that Mark Taylor is skedaddling out of politics. Taylor, who finished with just 39 percent of the vote, wasn't a galvanizer for the Little and Getting Littler Party; he was a traumatizer.

"The top of the ticket was blown up," concedes Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who along with Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin are the Democrats' last surviving constitutional officeholders. Thurmond cites as silver lining the re-election of congressmen John Barrow and Jim Marshall, who faced stiff Republican challenges in their rural districts. "We had some great national news," Thurmond offers. "We've got to keep this in perspective."

What Georgia Democrats are left with is no leader, no coherent program, a loss of two statewide seats and a weakened contingent in the General Assembly. It ain't pretty.

But Orrock, the newly elected state senator, was in a schizophrenic mood last week. She was dismayed at losses in Georgia but ecstatic at the Democratic Party's national wins in both houses of Congress.

And if a silver lining could be found in the state party's loss -- that might serve as a warning to Republicans -- it was in the parallel that can be drawn to the national level. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that Republicans were crowing confidently in Washington before crashing and burning largely because they pressed forward with unpopular policies.

To take advantage of that kind of situation, Democrats will have to shake their denial and adapt to the fact that they're the opposition. They'll have to reconstruct the party from an almost nonexistent grassroots network. And they'll have to push for ideas that will capture the attention of the majority of Georgians.

"What is happening to the Democratic Party is akin to when a shrub gets a pruning," Thurmond says. "You prune in the fall, right? It's painful. It looks ugly. But it will regenerate, and it will flourish in the spring."

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