ATLANTA — With a historically low number of seats in the Georgia House of Representatives, Democratic leaders acknowledge that they need to widen their base beyond African-Americans and white liberals in urban areas.
Yet when the Assembly convenes in January, the lower chamber's minority party's top leaders will all be black Democrats, as Rep. Virgil Fludd of Tyrone was elected caucus chairman Monday over Brian Thomas, a white Democrat from Lilburn who previously held the post.
"We have to reach out," Fludd said. "We do have to have honest conversations about race moving forward."
Thomas said, "I certainly don't believe that we are headed to being a 'black Democratic Party.' I think everyone in our party and in our caucus understands there needs to be a diverse base of voters for us to move forward."
The Republican leadership team, meanwhile, remains all-white. The GOP re-nominated David Ralston of Blue Ridge for another term as speaker. He will be elected when the entire body convenes.
Larry O'Neal was re-elected as majority leader without opposition. Republican Caucus Chairwoman Donna Sheldon of Dacula withstood a challenge from Delvis Dutton, a tea party conservative from Glennville.
The caucus is one seat shy of a two-thirds majority, enough to override vetoes from Gov. Nathan Deal or approve constitutional amendments without a single Democratic vote.
Ralston will be elected speaker when the entire body convenes.
From a policy perspective, there may be little consequence to any of those votes. But Fludd's ascension underscores the increasing racial and demographic polarization of Georgia's electorate. The dynamic is accentuated by the legislative districts that the Republican majority redrew after the 2010 census, further confining Democrats to metropolitan Atlanta and other urban areas, many of them dominated by non-white voters.
The difference was obvious in the simultaneous caucus meetings at the Capitol. Republicans filled much of the House chamber with 113 of their 119 members, 24 of them just having won re-election. They could reach the supermajority threshold should independent Rep. Culver "Rusty" Kidd join the GOP, as he said last week he is considering. Kidd was not in the House chamber Monday.
The 60 Democrats, meanwhile, gathered in the much smaller Senate chamber. Speakers addressed the meeting without needing a sound system.
Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta told her colleagues that last Tuesday was a success, despite the GOP gaining seats. The new legislative maps, she said, gave Republicans a natural advantage in 124 districts. So keeping them at 119, she said, is a victory: "Democrats are on the ascendancy." She did not address the possibility of Kidd's switch.
Abrams and Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley of Columbus were re-elected to their party posts without opposition.
Taking the long view, Abrams said that demographics in Georgia favor Democrats. The state's electorate is becoming younger, less native and less white; a slim majority of Georgians under 18 are non-white.
Fludd promised that he would not wait for the demographic shifts to show up at the ballot box. He said he would recruit candidates immediately for 2014 elections. He said he'd start a caucus political action committee and target unions, plaintiffs attorneys and corporations for support.
As for reaching more white voters, he said, "We have an economic message that appeals to working class voters in every district."