Posted: 6:00 pm Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Ending a drought of successful black candidates in Georgia 

By Jim Galloway

Eight years have passed since an African-American won a statewide, partisan election in Georgia. And truth be told, the real drought has lasted much longer.

The first and only time a black candidate has won statewide office in Georgia without first being appointed to it — and thus having the advantage of incumbency – was in 1998, when Democrat Michael Thurmond claimed the open seat for state labor commissioner.

It is one of the crueler streaks of Georgia politics, but may be about to end. The winds of change are blowing on both the Republican and Democratic side of this year’s race for state school superintendent.

Of 15 candidates to replace Republican incumbent John Barge, eight are black. On the Democratic side, all six candidates are African-American. Within that half-dozen, only two candidates are raising significant amounts of cash: state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell, and Valarie Wilson of Decatur, former head of the Georgia School Boards Association.

Morgan has the backing of the school choice crowd, plus heavyweights like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and acting DeKalb County CEO Lee May. Wilson is already picking up the support of Georgia’s education establishment, a powerful force in Democratic circles.

The fight could be epic – and yet, could still be less interesting than what’s now happening in the Republican race to become the state’s top educator.

Fitz Johnson, GOP candidate for state school superintendent

Fitz Johnson, GOP candidate for state school superintendent

The two of the three top fundraisers in the nine-person field are African-Americans. Fitz Johnson of Cobb County, a successful businessman with a strong military background, had raised $277,485 as of last month – including $167,000 of his own money. Ashley Bell, a former Democrat and Hall County commissioner who has been part of the national GOP effort to broaden the party’s base, reported $41,303 raised.

In a field this large, money is no guarantee of success. Fifteen percent of the vote in a May 20 primary could win a candidate a berth in the inevitable runoff. And certainly, other candidates may lack cash, but have advantageous followings – among them former DeKalb County school board member and tea partyist Nancy Jester.

But the very real possibility of a statewide, black-on-black runoff in a Republican primary is nothing less than dizzying.

Given that there is no significant African-American pool of voters to split in a Republican primary, both black candidates are positioning themselves on opposite sides of the current GOP divide over Common Core.

Johnson is a 21-year Army veteran who, with his father and brother, launched a successful defense contracting company. He’s got degrees in education from The Citadel and Troy State, plus a law degree from the University of Kentucky.

“I’m bringing something different to the table,” Johnson said in an interview. In the military and business, he argues that he has commanded large bureaucracies – the kind of experience needed to operate a state department with a $9.6 billion budget and nearly 1,000 direct employees.

Johnson’s business ties argue for future support from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Two GOP state lawmakers, Reps. Mike Dudgeon of Johns Creek and Terry Rogers of Clarksville, have stepped out for him, as has the Georgia Association of Realtors and James Bostic, a former state school board member and retired vice president of Georgia Pacific.

Ashley Bell, GOP candidate for state school superintendent

Ashley Bell, GOP candidate for state school superintendent

The Georgia Chamber supports Common Core, the new voluntary and national standards for k-12 education. Johnson is circumspect on the issue. “I firmly believe Georgia standards should be developed by Georgians,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we do want to be able to measure how are kids are doing against other states.”

Ashley Bell first came to prominence in 2010, when as a Hall County commissioner and former national president of the College Democrats of America, he became a Republican. He lost his re-election bid in the GOP primary.

But Bell has spent the last four years hosting a morning talk radio show that broadcasts throughout much of northeast Georgia. And in 2012, he joined the effort by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, to bring more minorities into the GOP fold.

Bell also notes that Hall isn’t just his county – it’s home to Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. “We’re the only candidate with a base. We come from a county that’s going to be overperforming,” Bell said.

Bell considers himself a full-throated opponent of Common Core. “I chair a charter school here in Gainesville. I can tell you the implementation of Common Core has been a disaster,” he said. (Bell also said he led the discussion that resulted in a school policy giving security personnel at Gainesville High School emergency access to rifles.)

Johnson and Bell have two points of agreement. Both recognize the damage done by the split between Barge, the current superintendent, and the governor. Both have promised to mend that broken fence.

And both understand that, whatever their views on Common Core, the final decision is beyond the pay grade of a mere state school superintendent.

“There are folks in the Gold Dome who are going to make that call of whether we pull out or not. That’s not my job. What my job will be is to ease the pain,” Bell said.

35 comments
GeorgiaPeaches2013
GeorgiaPeaches2013

Fitz Johnson has my vote with his business and military experience! I am excited to support him as our next Superintendent!

kindergartenmath
kindergartenmath

Here is where the real mischief will begin. Democrats have no really contested primaries for the top of the ticket- the Governor and Senate races. Their anointed ones ( Carter and Nunn) are shoe-ins.  Similarly, Wilson will win in a walk for school Superintendent over her primary opponent. Therefore, large numbers of them will not take the opportunity to waste their primary vote in the Democrat primary, but will instead vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for  Broun for Senate and Barge for Governor, hoping that those guys will have to face their standard bearers.  You can count on it.

SmartAleck
SmartAleck

Hey Jim Galloway!  Why don't you just jump in---hand in glove--with hyping RACE in the election!  

I mean, after all, you are "all in"  as a left wing hack willing to bend over every time the democRats pull your chain. 

Nice job!  You are about as transparent as a brick.

honested
honested

Statewide elected officials of color?


Never mind, Georgians have made it clear they prefer unethical, unqualified rednecks unconcerned with the realities of 21st Century America.

Rhettbutler
Rhettbutler

I read in one sentence black and in the other african american. What is the difference? Inquiring minds want to know.

likeitis
likeitis

Come on Mary Elizabeth Sings you are out of tune and off key again. Everyone who votes in Georgia knows that ALL elected officials in this State shale in their boots when someone even hints that they vote against anything that the Teachers Association wants so please tune up and sing it right.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Kasim Reed is asking:  What about me???  The AJC has propped me up as a viable candidate just like Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn.  I guess I should not have bad-mouthed Fulton County & knocked-up my girlfriend.

Bernie31
Bernie31

I guess the old saying is TRUE..when you tire of Licking them....You Join them. 

These Good ole Boys in down heh, do not care about where you went to school. Where ya live or what yer politics is. The GOOBERS will NEVER accept You, as one of their own and will only use you when needed. Like campaign appearances and background photos. 

Your Role is to be SEEN and NOT Heard. See You in the ads and Campaign stops standing in the rear or along the side...Make SURE You Smile Broadly with a LOT of Grinning....they love to see the Pearly Whites. It makes you LOOK Happy!  No concern if you really are ...because No one Cares anyway!


As Long as you remain in yer Place, we will Love YA!


But You know All of this already....They make You feel Special, We Understand.


There is going a Lot of Head rubbing for these two!


This was not part of Dr. King's Dream....this was his Nightmare.


uh..huh

tinhat
tinhat

Purely and simply, Bell is an opportunist. The folks in very, very red Hall County saw through his epiphany when he become a Republican and summarily dismissed him from office.


He was party to a coup with two fellow commissioners-elect to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meetings Act when they colluded to fire the Hall County Manager, his assistant and several other employees prior to Craig Lutz (who's running for PSC) and Scott Gibbs being sworn into office.


He goes wherever the political winds blow him. Nice guy, but if you think Zell was a zig-zagger, elect him and see what we get.


MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"Morgan has the backing of the school choice crowd, plus heavyweights like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and acting DeKalb County CEO Lee May. Wilson is already picking up the support of Georgia’s education establishment, a powerful force in Democratic circles."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Teachers, if you are wise, for all of the reasons which I have previously addressed (on various AJC blogs) regarding the political will to dismantle traditional public schools, and public school teachers' benefits, for reasons based on private profit and the self-interests of politicians who appear to be playing politics in harmony with powerful forces outside of Georgia, you will take careful notice of the sentence, above, and vote accordingly in the Democratic Primary.  If I were voting in the Democratic Primary, I would be voting for Valarie Wilson for Georgia's Superintendent of Schools, and certainly not for Alisha Thomas Morgan, who sponsored the House Resolution which became the Amendment to Georgia's Constitution which allowed for the establishment of Special Charter Schools, outside of the jurisdiction of school districts in Georgia.

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

Why aren't the liberals posting here excited about a black on black election?

Oh, wait.  A Republican is going to win since it is a statewide race in a red state.

Never mind.  Good night other AJC posters just lurking (says 22 above). 

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

"But the very real possibility of a statewide, black-on-black runoff in a Republican primary is nothing less than dizzying."  Not to folks who look at candidates instead of just race.

"The two of the three top fundraisers in the nine-person [Republican] field are African-Americans."  Which begs the question as to who the other unmentioned one is.

"Johnson and Bell have two points of agreement. Both recognize the damage done by the split between Barge, the current superintendent, and the governor."  And why Barge is a political opportunist without a constituency.

td1234
td1234

I think Mike Buck is the best choice so far but I would vote for Johnson if he makes it to the run-off without Buck in it. 

Andy123
Andy123

@honested

You've never heard of Dekalb County, Fulton County or City of Atlanta have you?  

Find an elected person of color from each county that isn't corrupt and report back to us.    You must have forgot the last mayor of ATL was a black female bigot. 

honested
honested

@MiltonMan  

As long as you realize your little burg will ALWAYS be in Fulton County.

Nobody_Knows
Nobody_Knows

@MiltonMan  

Might be best to get a girlfriend or wife first.  

Your little angry man act seems to be more than an act.   

Andy123
Andy123

@Bernie31

Glad to see you're OK Bernie!  The first thing I thought about when I saw that story about the car running into the Kroger on Cascade Rd was I hope Bernie was panhandling in front of the Krystal on Cleveland Ave and not in front that Kroger as you usually do!

uh...huh 

td1234
td1234

@tinhat  I will not vote for Bell for similar reasons. 

td1234
td1234

@MaryElizabethSings  If you are a Democrat and really want to see change in Education then you should be voting for Dr. Barge in the Republican primary. 


Deal has already stripped most if not all of the power from the State school Superintendent and nothing can be done in the department without the approval of the state board of education and they are all appointed by Deal. 


With Deal in power education is run out of the governors office and the state super in nothing more than a ceremonial position. 

td1234
td1234

@The_Centrist  Barge has a constituency of about 100,000 teachers. He gave up a safe re-election bid to run a uphill campaign against an incumbent governor of his own party in the primary because he felt so strongly about how the governor is totally hosing teachers and the children of the state to pay off his political cronies like Blue cross and all those for profit charter school business types. 


If you are a parent and think the education of your children is more important than paying off political cronies on their backs with more cuts to education and more furlough days then you better vote Barge in the Republican primary on May 20th. 

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@td1234 - How do you feel about Morgan, Johnson, Bell, and Nancy/(Stan) Jester?
 I am still open and need to learn more about them all.

Andy123
Andy123

@honested @MiltonMan

I will agree with you there.  WTF anyone would pay big money to live in the over-priced white section of North Fulton is beyond me.  Travel two miles and live in Cherokee with a county full of successful white people and NO MARTA. 

Nobody_Knows
Nobody_Knows

@td1234 @tinhat 

Yet you voted for Deal who did the same

You even bragged that your buy a bride took a pic with Deal

lol

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@td1234 - If many of those teachers were Republican and for Barge, his poll numbers would not be stuck in single digits.  I doubt he would have had a safe re-election after all of his public bucking of his Parties' Governor.  We will continue to disagree about his chances until next month.  But thanks for your input about his replacement.

td1234
td1234

@The_Centrist  I heard Johnson speak a few weeks ago and he has a pretty impressive background and gives a good speech. He is not an educator and has never been in the classroom so that is why I put him second on my list behind Buck. 


Willis actually impressed me 4 years ago running as the Libertarian. She was part of a  townhall debate with Barge and Martin with a room full of Teach for America students. One of them asked her what programs she would institute to solve the Education gap between white. black and rural, urban. She gave the most honest answer I have heard.


Willis: (paraphase) We can develop the best programs in the world and spend 10 times the amount of money we are spending now and we are only going to see marginal changes until we convince rural and urban parents that their number one job is to raise their children to see the importance of education and to set high expectations in their homes that education is the number one and only priority.   

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@td1234 - You certainly have me by longevity.  But lots has changed in campaign finance, ban during legislative sessions, TV advertising, polling, and time between the primary and general election.  Not trying to spin - just call it as I see it.

td1234
td1234

@The_Centrist  You can spin it anyway you like my friend but I have been following politics in Georgia for more than 30 years and have never seen an incumbent Governor make this kind of a buy in the primary. 

The_Centrist
The_Centrist

@td1234 - We already discussed this.  He will have a LOT more money now that the ban on fund raising during the legislative session is over, and it is only 7 months before the general election.  Incumbents have large donor lists, the GA and National Republican Party will be stuffing his campaign coffers in Summer and Fall, along with PAC support.  His soft ad is generic - not even aimed at Barge or Pennington.  Democrats will be a lot more concerned about using their cash for the Senate race than the Gubernatorial one - and in many other states than GA.

td1234
td1234

@The_Centrist @td1234  Politics is about following the money. Deal would not be spending 25% of his cash on hand or $1 million on TV ads 5 weeks out of a primary if his internal poll numbers are not showing a way closer primary than what the external polls are showing. 


BTW: You are welcome.

td1234
td1234

@whats_best_for_kids  I have not been to any of the forums this year. I was quoting Ms. Willis from 4 years ago because it was one of the most truthful statements I have ever heard a politician make. 


I like her but I like Mike Buck better because he has not only been in the classroom but been an AP, Principal and Deputy state super. I am not sure if Ms. Willis has no proven leadership ability. I hope Mr. Buck would promote her to the state office and give her some experience. 

whats_best_for_kids
whats_best_for_kids

@td1234


You quote Willis from four years ago.  What has she said recently?  Since you have been to the forums and have heard the candidates, why not talk about what the candidates say now? 

I. too, have heard Willis, and she is the ONLY one who is still in the schools.  She has a firm grasp on what is happening now...today. I like everything she says, and she is pragmatic about the role of the superintendent.  I believe she said the state school superintendent needs to, "make sure that everyone is working under the governor's vision, in accordance to the legislative dollars, and with the board of education..."

What have you heard her say recently?