ATLANTA — Maybe it's a bid for redemption. Or an act of atonement. Or, as former Gov. Roy Barnes says, maybe he is again seeking his old office out of a sense that if he didn't take on Georgia's most pressing problems, no one else would.
"I was to the point in life where I could enjoy some things," Barnes, 62, out of office since 2003, says. "But I just couldn't take it. I declare, it just wore on me more and more about where we were and where we are."
Barnes' disquiet over education, transportation and other intractable issues intruded on his morning ritual: coffee and the newspapers in the study of his newly constructed Victorian-style home a mile from his law office near the Marietta Square.
"I can't believe they're doing this," he would grumble as he read about the latest machinations in the Capitol. His wife, Marie, finally had heard enough.
"She came in one morning about this time last year," Barnes says, "and she said, 'You either need to run again or to shut up.' I said, 'Well, I just don't know.' She said, 'You're either going to have to do it yourself, or you've just got to accept it.' And I couldn't accept it.
"I know that sounds corny, and nobody's going to believe it. But it's the truth."
Thus began one of the most unlikely political comebacks in Georgia history. Barnes' loss to Republican Sonny Perdue in 2002 set in motion the undoing of more than a century of Democratic dominance in state government. Solidly Democratic when Barnes took office, Georgia now has a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. senators, and Republican majorities in the General Assembly and in the state's congressional delegation. When he entered this year's race, Barnes' name recognition alone made him the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But clearly he has a lot of ground to make up.
Barnes' campaign is based on two conflicting ideas: one that acknowledges his flaws and failures, another that emphasizes his experience and competence.
"As governor my heart was in the right place," Barnes says in an ad on his campaign website. "But I didn't listen or slow down to explain why I had to make some difficult decisions. For that, I apologize." But, he adds, "we can make Georgia work again if we join together with respect."
Explanations and apologies were scarce when Barnes was governor.
He pushed lawmakers to control suburban sprawl, to reorganize health agencies, to act on metro Atlanta's traffic congestion, to revamp the public schools. And that was just in his first two years. Then he took on what others had considered political suicide: the Confederate battle symbol on the state flag.
Barnes tried to do so much so fast that Republican legislators, then a mostly powerless minority, mocked him as "King Roy." In 2002, Perdue's campaign distributed a computer-enhanced video that depicted Barnes as a giant rat with a golden crown. A narrator described Barnes as "shifty and crafty" and "a wily ol' trial lawyer."
Barnes' activist approach alienated a remarkable number of constituencies: supporters of the old Georgia flag; residents of Atlanta's far northern suburbs, who didn't like a highway project Barnes proposed; public health advocates, who opposed Barnes' idea to compensate tobacco farmers with money from a settlement with cigarette companies.
No group, however, felt more slighted than public school teachers. Many claimed that when Barnes proposed ending tenure and holding teachers accountable for student achievement, he unfairly blamed them for ills in public education that were far beyond their control.
"Eight years ago it was anybody but Barnes, and Governor Perdue said all the right things," says Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teachers' organization.
But with deep cuts in education funding, teacher layoffs and furloughs, Callahan says, "there has been eight years of buyers' remorse."
Barnes tells of meeting with a small group of teachers in southwest Georgia, the door closed, no outsiders listening.
"After we talked about an hour, I said, 'All right, you got mad at me in 2002. What did I do wrong?' This one teacher says, 'You know, we were talking about that before you got here. We forgot what it was we got mad at you for.'"
A warm reception usually greets the former governor, even among groups and in places where he polled poorly in 2002, says former Democratic U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden of Marietta, Barnes' friend of 40 years.
"There's a change in attitude in people's feelings about Roy Barnes," Darden says. "I know him as well as anybody. I think he does feel a sense of commitment to this state. He is very concerned and very upset about the direction the state has taken.
"I told him this is my last rodeo, and I think this is his last rodeo."
For Barnes, this last hurrah has had a liberating effect. He seems relaxed and comfortable during an interview, mixing political talk with discussion of a diverse group of historical figures: George Washington and James Jackson, Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson, among others.
He brushes off criticism from opponents who say his populist stance — he has railed against "special interests," big business and banks — is hypocritical, considering his net worth on Dec. 31 approached $17 million, more than $2 million of it in bank shares.
"I'm a capitalist through and through," Barnes says. "I believe in making a profit. I do not believe in gouging folks and being unfair."
He is incensed, he says, that legislators would approve corporate tax breaks while slashing education spending. He says that simply shifts costs onto ordinary people through higher property taxes.
"I really don't know how to explain this," Barnes says. "But it's almost as if the Legislature found a bottle of crazy pills and they took them."
"What has happened to us? I mean, what has happened to us?"
It's this outrage, he says, that motivated his re-entry into politics. He had established an enjoyable life; his six grandchildren live minutes from his home, and his law practice has flourished. But he couldn't stop studying state budgets, poring over government revenue estimates, grousing over news from the Capitol.
"I encouraged others to run," Barnes says. "I called a half a dozen and said, 'Listen, you need to run.' I even called some Republicans, I don't mind telling you. I'm not going to tell you who, but I called several. I said, 'You know, this is distressing to me.'
"I guess I should have just shut up and gone on about my business. But I just couldn't do it."