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Despite setbacks, Democrats can be optimistic

Posted: June 12, 2013 - 12:08am

If you’re a Democrat in Georgia, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the future.

The state’s changing demographic mix normally would bode well for the party, as the percentage of white voters has dropped below 60 percent and the numbers of black and Latino voters who are more likely to vote for a Democrat continue to grow.

There is still a substantial base of Democratic support in this conservative, Republican-leaning state. Barack Obama drew 47 percent of Georgia’s vote in 2008 and nearly 46 percent in 2012.

The other indicators are not so encouraging.

Republicans occupy the governor’s mansion and hold every statewide office, as well as controlling two-thirds of the seats in the General Assembly and the congressional delegation.

For the major races on next year’s election ballot, strong Republican candidates are already lining up to run for each office. The Democratic bench is much thinner.

The state Democratic Party organization has also been split by squabbling between its factions, with Chairman Mike Berlon at one point threatening to file libel suits against those who blogged about the police record of a party official.

The party’s executive director resigned and was not replaced on a full-time basis. Athens attorney Russell Edwards resigned as the party’s treasurer and was replaced by state Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah. The party’s communications director left to start his own consulting firm.

The most recent financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that Georgia Democrats have just about hit the bottom. The party said it had only $30,734 cash on hand, while the Republican Party had $631,960 in its coffers, a 21-1 advantage.

Surely, you think, it couldn’t get worse. Think again. The state Supreme Court recently approved a reprimand of Berlon, a Gwinnett County attorney, to settle a complaint of unprofessional conduct. There have also been media reports of Berlon being accused by several legal clients of mishandling their cases or their money.

Those kinds of allegations might make prominent political contributors a little more reluctant to give money to help Democrats get their feet back on the ground.

“If you’ve been accused of taking $900,000 from a client, why would any contributor trust you with their money?” asked David Worley, a former chairman of the state party.

Worley called on Berlon to resign as party chairman, a call that was also taken up by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Berlon issued a statement last week that he was “prepared to step down” from his position, and later did just that.

“My goal is, and always has been, to unify Georgia Democrats,” Berlon said. “We have an important U.S. Senate race in 2014 and our focus should be on winning that seat and others.”

The state party’s executive committee could replace Berlon temporarily until a new chairman can be elected. Perhaps the party’s delegates will even find a chairman with the leadership talents to get them turned around in the right direction.

This might all sound like inside baseball that is relevant only to the small percentage of the population that gets involved in running a political party, but all Georgians have a stake in this. Politically speaking, it’s much healthier for a state to have two parties that compete for control of government.

A viable opposition party can keep an eye on what the other side is doing and blow the whistle if it thinks taxpayers’ money is being misused.

The minority party can also be a source of innovative ideas for governing that might be disregarded by the controlling party for ideological or other reasons.

Georgia has never really had this kind of competitive, two-party system. For more than a century, Democrats ruled the state and could ignore GOP complaints; for the past decade, Republicans have held that same iron grip on power and have brushed aside any criticisms of their activities.

Regardless of which party you prefer, you are generally better off when there are two of them fighting against each other. Each party serves as a watchdog on the opposition and helps keep them honest. That’s not a bad thing.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)

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