One Party, Two Georgias
by CHARLIE HARPER
March 9, 2011
It wasn’t supposed to be close.
Nathan Deal released his plan for restructuring Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program with not only Republican leadership of both House and Senate flanking him at his press conference, but also Representatives Stacey Abrams and Calvin Smyre. Abrams is the new House Minority leader, a respected in-town Atlanta Democrat from the state’s more progressive wing of the party. Smyre, a former Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman, served in House leadership when Democrats were the only party in Georgia, and represented a more broad governing coalition.
Abrams was tapped by Governor Deal to be inside the room, and given a real voice to alter key provisions of HOPE. She is credited with protecting key provisions such as maintaining funding for remedial programs in technical schools, as well as initiating a loan program to assist funding gaps caused by reduced tuition coverage. In exchange for these concessions, Abrams became an advocate.
The inclusion of Abrams and Smyre was, in political reality, political gravy for new Governor Deal. Elected in November with a 10% spread over his Democratic rival, Deal came into office with a full slate of Republican constitutional officers, 35 (of 56) Republican Senators, and 116 (of 180) Republican House members. With the first major policy initiative of a new Republican Governor backed by near super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, HOPE adjustments were assured passage by the new one party Georgia.
That is, until that whole “two Georgias” issue resurfaced.
Back when Georgia was a one party state under that other party, Democrats often had a campaign theme of “two Georgias”. While never given specific boundaries, there was presumed a rural Georgia and a metro Atlanta Georgia. Sometimes it was a rich Georgia versus a poor Georgia. Black versus White. North Versus South. Us against them.
Folks assuming that one party rule would be an end to competitive politics under the gold dome received a wakeup call Monday and Tuesday when Senator Jason Carter (D-Decatur) somewhat unexpectedly made the coronation of Deal’s HOPE reform package an actual contest for passage. Though the bill won Senate approval, Carter was able to appeal to rural Georgia Republicans by using a simple spreadsheet to make a sharp point: voting for his proposal to means test HOPE would ensure 100% college funding for virtually all of HOPE recipients in their district.
In placing clear data in the hands of rural Senators, Carter was able to send a direct message. If he can hand you this today, an opponent can mail or robo-call your voters this same info next November. And in a state where HOPE has become our own untouchable entitlement, a vote for reducing HOPE benefits to 90% of tuition for all when 100% can be preserved for their constituents if more was taken from suburban Atlanta families was compelling. In the end, it was enough to extract a guarantee that the top two students from every high school in Georgia would receive a full ride, not just those with a 3.7 GPA and 1200 SAT.
In winning these concessions, Carter has also begun to crystallize a potential path forward to Democratic relevancy, and perhaps, his own upward trajectory. Republicans moved from obscurity to majority party by picking off coalitions within the Democratic party to systematically win issues, build a platform, and eventually, the state.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been consumed with hand wringing and teeth gnashing over how to reunite their urban Atlanta base with rural Georgians who are bolting the party in droves. Carter of Decatur has the Atlanta Democratic base covered. But just down the road from his district is a Presidential library bearing his family name, one with its roots still firmly entrenched in Southwest Georgia’s peanut producing soil.
At the end of this day, Deal and the Republican majority won the day with their solution to preserve HOPE. The silver lining for Democrats is that Jason Carter may be reason for them to maintain hope as well.