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Georgian views Obama bomb

POSTED: February 20, 2007 5:06 a.m.
“Democratic candidates must treat Sen. [Barack] Obama just like any other candidate. They must not treat him differently because he is an African American.” That bit of guidance for white Democratic presidential candidates comes from perhaps the smartest politician in the Georgia Democratic Party — Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, the only black candidate to win statewide office without first being appointed.
Thurmond says he was surprised by last week’s explosive media reaction to “condescending remarks” about Obama from Delaware Sen. Joe Biden. In an interview with the New York Observer newspaper, long-shot Democratic presidential contender Biden described Obama as “the first mainstream African-American (presidential candidate) who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking.” He forgot to mention former presidential candidates Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Alan Keyes.
From the loud criticism that followed, one might have thought Biden had used a vulgar term to describe Obama.  
The gaffe caused conservative GOP strategists to move from glum to gleeful. They suddenly believe Obama could be the national Democrats’ Achilles’ heel. Other Democratic candidates will have to handle him with kid gloves for the rest of the yearlong primary campaign or risk alienating African-American voters. On the other hand, special treatment for Obama may turn off white voters.  
And if Obama insists on running as the black candidate, he’s a dead duck, Thurmond believes.
“The last frontier for black candidates is being able to win in white jurisdictions. When I run for election, I tell my audiences, regardless of their race, ‘Don’t vote for me because I’m an African-American, and don’t vote against me because I’m an African-American. Vote for what I stand for,’ ” Thurmond says.
Thurmond was to meet with Obama late last week at a gathering of ranking Democrats in Washington. The Democratic brain trust ought to call on Thurmond for advice in handling the ticklish drive for the presidential nomination.
The Georgia official knows how to avoid the race trap.
In his three contests for labor commissioner, Thurmond has routed a half dozen white Democratic and Republican contenders.
In 2002, he won re-election with 51 percent of the vote and with blacks comprising 21 percent of the turnout. Last year, he captured 55 percent of the ballots, as black representation in the election hit a near-record-high 24 percent, according to official election numbers.
First elected to the state House in 1986 from Clarke County, Thurmond was, at one time, the only African-American lawmaker from a white-majority district. He also was the first black legislator since Reconstruction elected from Clarke County. As Thurmond racked up one political achievement after another, he watched his Democratic Party collapse around him, losing the governor's office, control of the Legislature and both U.S. Senate seats. He saw his Democratic mentor Gov. Zell Miller throw in with the Republicans and endorse President George W. Bush and Gov. Sonny Perdue. (In the mid1990s, Miller appointed Thurmond to direct his welfare-reform program.)
On the campaign trail, Thurmond joked with white audiences about being blood kin to the late ultra-conservative white Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In each of his elections for commissioner, Mike Thurmond swept several mountain counties where only a handful of black voters reside. To be sure, the labor commissioner election is a down-ballot, low-profile contest that draws only a fraction of the attention devoted to, say, a presidential primary or a governor’s race. Still, Thurmond’s success in reducing the race factor in an Old South state is remarkable.
At the recent contentious Georgia Democratic Committee meeting, Thurmond worked feverishly behind the scenes to defeat labor union-backed Michael Berlon for party chair. Thurmond feared the controversial Berlon would marginalize the party's importance. Instead of Berlon, Democrats finally turned to former state Rep. Jane Kidd as their chairperson, and they installed Thurmond as first vice chair.
Thurmond is expected to play a pivotal role in vetting Democratic challengers to Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss next year. How Thurmond reacts to the anticipated Senate candidacy of DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, also an African American, may be a key to whether Democrats have any hope of retaking the post captured by Chambliss from Max Cleland in 2002.   
Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA  30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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