Last week, at their biggest annual fundraiser, more than 2,000 Georgia Democrats got dressed up, came downtown and partied like it was 1999.
We mean that literally. Amid the smiles and brass bands, there were few outward indications at Thursday's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner that this was a party that had, in the space of a few years, lost the Governor's Mansion, the Statehouse and the presidency.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, ex-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, erstwhile Secretary of State Cathy Cox and a brotherly pair of statewide also-rans, Jim and Joe Martin, drew crowds of well-wishers as they circulated among the throng – despite serving as walking reminders of the drubbing Democrats have lately taken at the polls. Even failed party strategist Bobby Kahn passed unmolested, shaking hands and waving to friends.
By contrast, at the state Republican convention in Gwinnett a couple days later, the response to speeches by the party's two U.S. senators ranged from polite applause to booing and catcalls. Gov. Sonny Perdue saw a fairly cool reception from audience members sporting "Real Republicans cut taxes" stickers. And, one after another, GOP congressmen appeared on stage to apologize for the dismal performance of the recent 109th Congress. Rep. John Linder of Gwinnett even intoned that his party needs to "return to the Republican principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong defense" – typically the kind of statement you hear from the losing side.
Any comparison of these two events is, of course, grossly unfair. Party conventions are often warts-and-all affairs where private rifts get settled – or not – in the open, while nobody ponying up $200 to attend a fundraising gala expects their rubber chicken to come with a side dish of self-recrimination.
Still, the upbeat mood of the Democratic gathering might have seemed inconsistent with the party's hard-luck status – unless you possess the outlook of state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur.
"It was sort of like a support group," she says. "It's encouraging to spend an evening in a roomful of people who think like you do."
Then there was the presence of top-tier presidential candidate John Edwards, who arrived late and spouseless, but brought his boyish smile and polished rhetorical delivery to help rally the troops. About half the ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center quickly emptied after dinner was served and the former North Carolina senator had left the stage. It may have been the Chablis talking, but one giddy woman on the way to her car couldn't help but gush: "I'm in love with John Edwards and I don't care who knows it!"
Truth is, both parties are in the process of rebuilding; the Democrats on the state level and the Republicans on the national level. It's anyone's guess where progress will occur first.
By some predictions, Georgia Democrats are still on a downward trajectory. Despite the warm vibe of solidarity at the J-J Dinner, there was no talk of the next big political up-and-comer. The only statewide candidate making any noise was DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, whose nascent campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss is, at best, hopeless and, at worst, yet another example of Democrats helping to shoot their own party in the foot. (See Taylor vs. Cox.)
The best that could be said, from a glass-half-full perspective, is that it could be worse. The Dems still hold six of 12 occupied congressional seats, despite the GOP re-gerrymandering of House districts, although they're unlikely to pick up the late Charlie Norwood's heavily conservative northeast Georgia seat next year. And they still boast three of five statewide elected department heads – including Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, a genuine party star who busted some mean James Brown moves when introduced Thursday night as he sang the opening lines of "I Feel Good."
On the national level, the Democratic Party has momentum to spare, with reason to hope it can recapture the White House. But in Georgia, it could be another two election cycles before Democrats are able to mount a credible grab for the Statehouse or governor's office.
Up in Gwinnett, on the other hand, a state party that by all rights should be basking in its hegemony was instead finding new reasons to disagree and squabble. Chambliss was greeted by a smattering of boos from the back of the Civic Center as he tried to explain why the compromise immigration bill he and fellow Sen. Johnny Isakson joined Democrats in backing does not amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Signs had been banned from the convention floor, so protesters stood on the fringes waving placards with such slogans as "Guestworker programs = Amnesty" and wearing stickers that read, "Kick me – I'm a citizen."
And the high-level infighting that made the recent General Assembly such an embarrassment for the state GOP showed no signs of abating, even though Perdue had earlier backed off his threat of a special session.
"We're not supposed to get along," explained a not-quite-contrite House Speaker Glenn Richardson. "We're supposed to get a job done."
After assuring the party faithful that he bears no ill will toward Perdue or Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Richardson launched into a full-on campaign speech in which he unveiled his own version of Zell Miller's lottery plan – a proposal to rid Georgia of all state property and income taxes in favor of a statewide sales tax. Next year, he said, he also plans to call for zero-based budgeting, a move that would require state departments to justify all spending.
Backstage, however, Richardson conceded that he hadn't bothered to give the governor the heads-up about his budget initiative. D'oh! And he continued to be dismissive about the failed, Perdue-suggested tax cut for seniors and, indeed, the governor's very role in the budget process. It's a safe bet we can expect more bumpy road ahead.
At least the speaker had a message. Perdue, by contrast, tried to soothe the frustration and tension with a feeble comparison of the budget process to a family business whose members sometimes bicker about finances but ultimately pull together to get the job done. The speech didn't do much to win over well-informed listeners, who blamed the 11th-hour derailing of the legislative session on the governor's curious disengagement.
"If it's a business, then the CEO was out to lunch," remarked one state lawmaker in attendance.
But the state GOP's worries pale in comparison with those of the national party, whose public image seems to decline every time the microphone is turned on at a congressional hearing. An informal presidential poll was taken at the convention. How telling is it that, despite the fact that there are already 10 official Republican candidates, the two top vote-getters – former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Georgia's own Newt Gingrich – are both guys who aren't actually running?
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