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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 17, 2002
On Nov. 5, Georgia became the latest state of the Old Confederacy to fall to the Republicans, and it fell hard. Four-term U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss unseated Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, and Republicans held on to a majority of the state's congressional seats despite a redistricting plan designed by a Democratic legislature. Sonny Perdue, a former state senator who switched parties four years ago, upset Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, becoming the first Republican elected governor since 1872. Within days, four Democrats switched parties and gave the Republicans control of the state Senate.
It was a stunning Republican breakthrough but one stained by the kind of racial pandering and patriotic demagoguery that has characterized Republican ascendancy in the South. Perdue fastened his underdog campaign to the Confederate flag, and Chambliss, in effect, questioned the patriotism of Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam.
Chambliss, who avoided military service in Vietnam because of a bad knee, used his good knee to kick the Democratic incumbent in the face. He accused Cleland of being soft on national security because he opposed the homeland security bill President Bush demanded from Congress. The attack on Cleland was disgraceful, but it worked. The state's most popular politician, Democratic U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, who has strong conservative credentials and often sides with the president, rose to Cleland's defense, but to no avail. Voters chose the bad-knee Republican over the Vietnam triple amputee.
None of this is to say that Cleland's wheelchair entitles him to a Senate seat, or that his voting record shouldn't be fair game in an election. However, for Republicans to suggest that he was not a reliable defender of the nation's security was a scurrilous insinuation. Cleland may not have been a strong senator, but when it comes to devotion to his country, he doesn't have to prove anything to Republican draft-dodgers, from Dick Cheney to Saxby Chambliss.
Sonny Perdue, meanwhile, won the governorship by following a strategy that has served Republicans well since 1964 -- a subtle appeal to the lingering resentments of Southern whites. Perdue found the perfect issue to arouse the "Forget Hell" crowd -- the new state flag. Two years ago, Gov. Barnes convinced the legislature to replace the old state flag, which prominently featured the Confederate battle flag emblem, with one that reduced that divisive symbol to a tiny icon at the bottom of the flag. Perdue brochures asked voters in rural areas to "remember who changed your flag," and they did.
According to the Associated Press, Perdue swept the state's predominantly rural, white counties. He won 95 of the 96 counties that are more than 65 percent white. Four years earlier, Barnes won 55 of those counties.
Perdue promised that, if elected, he would organize a statewide referendum to allow the people to decide whether to bring back the old flag. The popular response to his promise could be seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts around the state: "Change the governor, keep the flag" and "Boot Barnes, let us vote." The bring-back-our-flag crowd insists it's about heritage and ancestry and not about race. They must have forgotten the history of how the Confederate emblem came to dominate their state flag. The flag was changed by the Georgia legislature in 1956 as gesture of defiance after federal courts ordered the racial desegregation of the state's public schools. Not about race?
Now Perdue is about to reap the harvest of the seeds he sowed in the campaign. He's already squirming over how to keep his word to Confederate diehards without reopening the racially divisive fight that Barnes settled. Perdue says he never made a big issue of the flag in his campaign, but after the election he reiterated his position that voters should have a choice. "I don't campaign on one thing and do something else," he told reporters last week, suggesting the white flag of surrender is not an option.
It will be interesting to see if the governor-elect can placate his flag constituency without alienating the Atlanta business establishment, which fears the issue could lead to boycotts and protests that could tarnish the city's progressive image. Business leaders already are getting the word to Perdue -- don't pick at this scab.
In his victory speech, Perdue declared the end of Democratic dominance in Georgia by quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we're free at last." It must have been a jarring moment for anyone, especially blacks, watching the celebration on television -- a Republican who wants to unfurl a segregationist flag borrowing the stirring words of the great civil rights leader who died for the cause of desegregation.
Free at last? Not yet, Sonny. Southerners will never be really free as long as politicians pander to them on old resentments and divisive symbols of an ignoble past.