For the past few weeks, the Democratic primary in Georgia’s 12th district has been dominated by accusations that one of the three leading candidates sought to buy the endorsement of a key black business group.
The controversy underscores the importance of the black vote in a district that Democrats are determined to take back from freshman Rep. Max Burns (R) — and illustrates just how volatile and unpredictable this primary has become.
The east Georgia district is about 42 percent African-American, and blacks could make up 55 percent or 60 percent of the vote in the July 20 Democratic primary. But so far, none of the top-tier candidates, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow, Savannah attorney Tony Center and former state Sen. Doug Haines — all of whom are white — seems to have an obvious advantage.
“The candidates are really struggling to get into that community,” said David Simons, a Savannah-based political consultant.
The district was drawn, ironically, to elect a black Democrat in 2002. But the Democratic nominee, businessman Champ Walker, turned out to be fatally flawed, paving the way for Burns to win despite the district’s Democratic overlay.
Walker isn’t heard from much these days, and his father, former state Senate President Charles Walker Sr. (D), who masterminded the new district boundaries, was recently slapped with a 142-count indictment on a variety of corruption charges. The elder Walker is seeking to retake his Senate seat in the July 20 primary.
The flap over the Congressional endorsement by the Savannah Business League is only one of the battles being waged as the candidates criss-cross the large and diverse district in search of black votes.
Last month, Haines was touting his endorsement by the business league, a group of black business leaders in Savannah, one of the hubs of the district. But Center charged the league was trying to shake down the Congressional candidates and endorsed Haines only after Haines agreed to pay the group $76,000 for campaign services.
“Doug took a hit with this Savannah Business League thing,” Center said Tuesday. “It really hurt him.”
Haines denies the charges and said he only agreed to pay a smaller, unspecified amount of money to a consultant recommended by the league’s president.
“There’s been no financial transaction between our campaign and the Savannah Business League,” insisted Martin Metheny, a spokesman for Haines.
Metheny called Center’s accusations “sour grapes from someone who didn’t get an endorsement in his own back yard,” and said the lawyer runs the risk of alienating black voters.
“In Savannah, people know who the leadership of the Savannah Business League is,” he said. “This opponent of ours isn’t just attacking Doug’s credibility, he’s attacking the leadership of the organization.”
Simons, the political consultant, said he doubts the fight will have much of an impact with black voters one way or another. But the war of words between Center and Haines has probably worked to Barrow’s benefit.
Barrow, who has been considered the nominal frontrunner in the race for months, last week snagged the endorsement of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, one of the most popular black officials in the state. Franklin called Barrow “a consensus builder who knows how to listen and how to lead.” Several sources said he is planning to begin airing radio ads with Franklin later this week.
But Barrow’s opponents question whether Franklin has any appeal in the 12th district, which picks up only a sliver of the Atlanta media market.
Metheny said his boss is happier to have been endorsed by an influential alderwoman in Savannah and a state legislator in Burke County, among others.
“They’re really in touch with their communities,” he said. “They’re really going to be helpful to Doug when he’s in Congress.”
Roman Levit, Barrow’s campaign manager, retorted that most of Haines’ black support comes from his former colleagues in the Legislature who have little political juice in the 12th district.
“Shirley Franklin is a statewide political leader,” Levit said. “She’s sort of Georgia’s mayor, for lack of a better term.”
Center can also boast of endorsements from black leaders. But two of the Chatham County commissioners who Center said have endorsed him are also listed on Barrow’s campaign Web site as supporters.
Center, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 2002 and was the Democratic nominee against then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R) in 1992, said endorsements from leaders are less important than a candidate’s willingness to meet black voters face-to-face.
“If I can’t knock on the door and ask for their vote, I don’t deserve to be elected,” he said.
Center also said he is hoping that four competitive legislative primaries in black neighborhoods in Savannah drive up black turnout in his hometown to his benefit.
The uncertainty over how blacks in the district will vote reflects overall uncertainty concerning the primary outcome. There have been no recent internal or independent polls on the race, though Barrow is thought to be slightly ahead based on older surveys.
Each candidate is predicting that he will finish first in the primary, and each is cautiously optimistic about averting a runoff, which will take place Aug. 10 if no one receives 50 percent on July 20.
Barrow is the financial leader in the race and is expected to announce that he raised closed to $225,000 from April 1 to June 30. He is also the only candidate to be advertising regularly on television.
Barrow also enjoys institutional support from the Georgia AFL-CIO, the Georgia Federation of Teachers and several environmental groups.
“From my biased perspective, it looks like we’ll be peaking at the right time,” Levit said.
Haines, according to observers, seems to be banking on a superior grassroots operation, while Center is depending on his name recognition in the Savannah area carrying him forward.
Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said national Democrats are optimistic about their prospects in the 12th district regardless of the primary results.
“We remain extremely confident about our ability to win back this extremely Democratic district,” he said. “Max Burns’ campaign continues to flounder, and we have several strong candidates.”