Last Updated July 9, 2003
Georgia and Atlanta--the megacity whose metropolitan area spreads out over the red clay hills of 20 of Georgia's 159 counties--have been one of the great boom areas of America over the last dozen years and were the site of the biggest political upset and upheaval of election year 2002. Georgia's population grew by 26% in the 1990s, the sixth highest rate of population growth among states, the highest east of Colorado, and the highest rate of growth for Georgia since the 1870s, when Atlanta rose literally from the ashes of the Civil War and Henry Grady's New South sprang into being. Atlanta and Georgia have been in many ways, for many years, the center of the South, at least since William Tecumseh Sherman marched here in 1864. This is where John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola, where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and where most of the civil rights organizations that changed America were headquartered. But in growth and flamboyance, Georgia for decades was outdazzled by other parts of the South--by Texas with its oil wells and high-tech industries, by Florida with Miami Beach and Disney World, even by North Carolina with its Research Triangle and college basketball champions.
In the 1990s, however, Georgia grew faster than any of them, and by 2000 was the tenth-largest state--the first time it has been in the top 10 since the Census of 1850. Most of this growth has come in the booming Atlanta metropolitan area, not in the core city, but amid the hills of suburban counties for almost 100 miles around. Atlanta, long a regional capital, has become a world city, a status suitably memorialized when it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics, and re-emphasized every day as travelers all over the world watch the news from the CNN Broadcast Center. Atlanta in the 1990s was the central focus of Tom Wolfe's 1998 novel A Man in Full, with scenes ranging from a developer's mansion in Buckhead and 29,000-acre hunting estate in south Georgia to a phony Ku Klux Klan rally.
Neither Atlanta's rise to world eminence nor its role as the capital of the South was inevitable. This was only a small, though well located, railroad crossroads when it was burned by General William Tecumseh Sherman's troops on their "march to the sea." Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans all had stronger claims to being the central focus of the South a century ago. But in the 20th century two figures imprinted Atlanta on the national imagination. One was Margaret Mitchell, whose 1936 novel Gone with the Wind inspired the 1939 movie. The other was Martin Luther King Jr., reared in Atlanta and based there during most of his career, as a leader and ultimately the national symbol of the civil rights revolution that changed the South and the nation. Linking the two was Atlanta's business community, notably Robert Woodruff, who headed Coca-Cola from 1932-60 and made Coke a worldwide enterprise. Perhaps aware that a world company could not indefinitely be associated with racial segregation, Woodruff and William Hartsfield, mayor from 1937-61, cooperated with blacks and promoted Atlanta as "the city too busy to hate." Hartsfield's successor, Ivan Allen, elected in 1961 and 1965, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Peachtree Center and the first atriumed Hyatt Regency were going up in downtown Atlanta.
This new Atlanta was growing up amid a mostly rural, deeply segregationist Georgia that as late as 1960 cast the second-highest Democratic percentage of any state for president: Hatred of Sherman was still strong. Political contests typically matched Atlanta-supported moderates against rural-supported segregationists, and the latter invariably won: Georgia's electoral votes were cast for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968. Then came change in the person of Jimmy Carter, a former nuclear submarine officer and one-term state senator who was elected governor in 1970 with a rural base as well as conspicuous black support. On taking office he proclaimed a reconciliation of the races and installed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol. Carter thus became one of the first politicians from the rural South to celebrate and honor the civil rights revolution and in the process set himself on the road to being elected president in 1976.
Since then, Georgia and Atlanta have seen an in-migration of black Americans. The state's population was 29% black in 2000, the highest figure since 1950; the state has more blacks than any other state except New York and Texas, and will surpass them soon if present trends continue. The presence of 9 historically black colleges, of large numbers of prominent black public officials and businessmen, the growth of middle- and upper-income predominantly black suburban neighborhoods in DeKalb County and, more recently, Cobb County--all have made metro Atlanta in some sense the capital of black America. Arguably, Georgia has developed what Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler described in their book on race in the Army, All We Can Be, an Anglo-African culture, a merger of traditions that were long associated intimately in private life but rigidly and even violently separated in public. Georgia has four black Democratic congressmen, two from non-black majority districts, and Andrew Young won in a white-majority district as long ago as 1972; it has had many black Republicans running for office as well. Georgia also has been attracting immigrants: Its Hispanic population rose from 109,000 to 435,000 in the 1990s, and three Latino legislators were elected in 2002.
Demographic change and economic change in Georgia have been followed by political change--big and surprising Republican victories of 2002: The defeat of Senator Max Cleland by Congressman Saxby Chambliss and, even more surprising, the defeat of Governor Roy Barnes by former state Senator Sonny Perdue. This was a startling change from the state's close political divisions of the 1990s. Bill Clinton carried Georgia by 43.5%-42.9% in 1992 and lost it by 47%-46% in 1996. Republican Paul Coverdell defeated Democratic Senator Wyche Fowler 51%-49% in a November 1992 runoff made necessary by a Georgia law, since repealed, that required 50% to win. In 1994, Democratic Governor Zell Miller was reelected 51%-49% over Republican Guy Millner. In 1996, Democrat Max Cleland was elected senator by 49%-48% over Millner. In heavily pro-incumbent 1998, Coverdell was reelected 52%-45% and Democrat Roy Barnes was elected governor by 52%-44% over Millner--not a breakthrough for either party. Then, in 2000, a sign of change: George W. Bush carried Georgia by a solid 55%-43% margin. Bush carried metro Atlanta (which cast 53% of the state's votes) by 52%-45% and the rest of Georgia, historically Democratic, by a resounding 57%-41%.
Going into the 2002 elections Democrats seemed well-positioned. Barnes, an activist governor with strong ties to Atlanta's business community, raised $19 million for his campaign and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential or even presidential candidate. Cleland was well known as a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam and was strongly supported by his more conservative colleague Miller, appointed to fill the seat after Coverdell died in July 2000 and elected to the remainder of the term 58%-38% in 2000. The Democratic legislature, led by 28-year Speaker Tom Murphy passed complex redistricting plans designed to give Democrats a majority of the state's 13 House seats (up from 11 thanks to 1990s growth) and to lock in Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Arrayed against this juggernaut was Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and later a campaign consultant, who was elected Republican state chairman in May 2001. His Democratic counterpart said he was "a leading indicator of how extreme Georgia Republicans have become." But Reed believed that the state was demographically Republican, and becoming more so: Republican national tickets went from 43% in 1992 to 47% in 1996 and 55% in 2000. He knew he could not match Barnes in dollars, so he created an on-the-ground organization that ultimately deployed 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers to knock on 150,000 doors in 600 precincts. He ran registration drives in fast-growing heavily Republican counties in metro Atlanta. He helped the party find strong candidates--Perdue, a party-switcher, for governor; Chambliss, head of a congressional anti-terrorism task force, for senator. (It helped that Barnes's Democrats redistricted Chambliss out of his seat.) Perdue beat Barnes 51%-46%, losing the Atlanta area 48%-49% but carrying the rest of the state 55%-43%. Chambliss beat Cleland 53%-46%, carrying the Atlanta area 52%-47% and the rest of the state 54%-45%. Turnout rose robustly in central Atlanta and in black counties, but it rose even more in the fast-growing suburbs: Demographic growth translated into votes. Speaker Tom Murphy, after 42 years in the legislature, and state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker were defeated by Republicans. In the week after the election, four state senators switched parties and gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Conservative Democrat Terry Coleman won the speakership with a coalition of rural Democrats and two Republican crossover votes.
This was a political revolution of a sort that seldom occurs in a state. Smart, aggressive, relatively conservative Democrats like Miller and Barnes had kept their party on top with the help of Atlanta's business establishment and by the perception among ambitious politicos that the only way to win high office was to stay a Democrat. Now the business interests are likely to have little reason to support Democrats and many reasons to back Republicans. The politically ambitious could ponder the careers of Barnes and Perdue. Both started in politics as canny young legislators with ambitions to be governor. Barnes chose to remain a Democrat and was elected governor, then couldn't hold the office. Now Perdue, by winning against a well-financed incumbent, has shown that it is easier to win as a Republican. Georgia Democrats had a long run in power and compiled records in which they can reasonably take pride. Georgia Republicans may or may not do as well. But Georgia Democrats aren't likely to have another such run any time soon.
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