Word even was out among the cognoscenti that the state's ambitious, charismatic governor had bitten off more than he could chew during the last two sessions and was laying low in an attempt to restore his political capital.
Jan. 24 corrected -- actually, obliterated -- that misimpression. That's when Barnes and a tight circle of lawmakers unveiled their secret plan to change the state flag and, with stunning efficiency, rammed it through the House of Representatives.
It was the Barnes-storm to outdo all Barnes-storms -- the kind of power play that might have overwhelmed a Baltimore Ravens linebacker. It was a legislative tour de force for the Georgia history books, a performance so well-orchestrated that it solidifies Barnes' place forever as one of the state's shrewdest political operators.
It also was a secret plot hatched out of the public spotlight by an elite circle of men who left no room for public input, real debate or alternatives, and who misled the public about the status of the state's hottest political issue.
The plan hatched out of a July meeting between Barnes and state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, in a Los Angeles hotel room during the Democratic National Convention. If two men were equipped to come up with a strategy to deal with the flag it was Barnes, a business-oriented former legislator given to dramatic maneuvers, and Smyre, a Democratic National Committee member who has become the most effective inside player among African-American House members.
Barnes and Smyre discussed creating a commission to keep the issue alive during the upcoming session while they would work behind the scenes to fashion a compromise and assemble the votes they needed.
"In hindsight, that plan was sort of flawed," Smyre now says. If the behind-the-scenes operators couldn't settle on the real plan, the commission would have had either to keep meeting or to come up with a proposal doomed for failure.
So they abandoned the public part of the plan. Then, in November, Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, filed a bill for the upcoming session -- as he has for many sessions -- to revert to the state's less-controversial, pre-1956 flag. Brooks, who is as much of a populist-styled agitator as Smyre is an inside player, was a crucial member of the team: His support would ensure that the compromise would be acceptable to civil rights groups, whose concerns the change was meant to appease in the first place. So, in mid-December, the perennial outside agitator joined the slowly widening circle that was in on the plot.
On Jan. 3, the team began work on another faction of the Democratic Party -- the white, rural, moderately conservative veterans who hold many of the House's senior positions. Smyre and House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, came to the Capitol that day for a judge's swearing-in ceremony. With Brooks, they visited with the governor in his office, and Walker agreed to join in.
Publicly, the key players continued to pretend that nothing special was going on. Barnes seemed to duck the issue. Smyre was quoted in Creative Loafing as believing flag legislation couldn't make it to the House floor. Walker even submitted a proposal for a yearlong study commission on the issue.
But behind the scenes, the key players were very busy. Once the legislative session began, Smyre, Brooks, Barnes and Barnes' chief of staff, Bobby Kahn, would talk on the phone or in person three to five times a day to bounce ideas and strategies off of each other.
It was through these informal meetings both before and after the session that the plan "metamorphosized," in the words of one of the insiders, into the stealthy strategy that last week blew the lid off the Gold Dome.
The stakes were high because any failed effort could kill any other drive to change the state flag for years to come. The last thing the plotters wanted was a repeat of Gov. Zell Miller's very public battle to change the flag in 1993. Miller nearly lost re-election after his failure. So Barnes, Kahn, Brooks and Smyre agreed Barnes wouldn't be the public point man until the very day they'd unveil their plan.
"The key was to keep the rhetoric down. Any time the governor is involved, by definition, it elevates the rhetoric," Kahn says. Barnes simply would speak one-on-one with legislators as they were brought into the fold, while Smyre -- chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, which was to handle the bill -- would be the point man.
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