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.
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.
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.