Tuesday, Georgia Democrats did what many thought not possible. They rejected the Senate candidacy of controversial DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, and chose instead to nominate Jim Martin to take on Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss this fall. Martin, a Vietnam veteran and former state Department of Human Resources commissioner under Gov. Sonny Perdue and former Gov. Roy Barnes, also represented part of Atlanta in the General Assembly for 18 years.
When Jones announced his candidacy in early 2007, he was judged the immediate frontrunner. He was an African American running in an increasingly black Democratic primary, and his electoral base was in DeKalb, which now casts more votes in Democratic statewide contests than any other Georgia county.
What many (including Jones) failed to realize was how deeply alienating his tenure as DeKalb CEO had been, in both the predominately white northern end of the county and the predominately black southern end. An endless string of controversies followed him around, most entirely self-inflicted. They are too numerous to recount here, but they run the gamut from accusations of rape to repeated allegations of physical confrontations with fellow elected officials and constituents.
To his credit, Martin concentrated on entering into a runoff with Jones, and then tread carefully during the head-to-head contest. He focused on Jonesí open flirtation with the Republican Party, including his boasting that he supported George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Martin understood that Democratic primary voters, especially in the Atlanta media market, knew about Jonesí travails, and that there was no need to throw gasoline on the fire by highlighting them. Instead he reminded Democrats that Jones has strong Republican leanings and is pro-Bush, a toxic charge in a Democratic primary in 2008.
Martin received a major assist from Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. While visiting the state in July, Obama clearly let Georgians know that he disapproved of Jonesí unauthorized use of Obamaís image on Jonesí campaign mail, and that he didnít think much of Jonesí support for Bush. Itís hard to imagine a more devastating attacker for Jones than the first black presidential nominee and current national frontrunner for the White House.
The net result of Jonesí problems is that he failed to break 40 percent in all-important DeKalb County, his home turf. He actually ran worse there than he did statewide, and as a result, he went down in flames.
Martin deserves credit for running a smartly low-key primary race that ensured he secured the Democratic nomination without alienating the African Americans he will need in November. That said, Martin must shift gears quickly to take advantage of the openings Chambliss has given him. So far, that shift does not appear to have happened. When Chambliss called a press conference to attack Martin the day after the runoff, Martin took hours to respond and then did so with a quick appearance before reporters, reading a bland statement and taking no questions. While ìlow keyî may have been a savvy way to slip past Jones, it is not what Martin needs to make a run at knocking off Chambliss.
The well-funded Chambliss is clearly the favorite, but he has made some missteps that give Martin a real shot, if the Democrat uses them. A recent example is an incident that can only be described as insensitive and strange. Chambliss showed up at a hearing held by a Senate subcommittee of which he is not a member to aggressively attack a whistleblower testifying about the safety problems at the Imperial Sugar plant in Savannah, where a dust explosion killed 13 people on February 7.
When you add Chamblissí willingness to carry the water for the sugar industry against his own constituents to his support for a wildly unpopular bill that would have provided a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, you get the picture of a guy more interested in protecting the agribusinesses that fund his political career than the people who sent him to Washington. Maybe thatís because the senatorís world seems filled with lobbyists, from Chief of Staff Charlie Harman, who came through the revolving door straight from his lobbying job for the insurance industry, to Saxbyís son Bo, who just happened to find himself a lobbying gig when Dad went to Congress.
Martin has a chance to define Chambliss as the archetype of what Americans donít like about our nationís capital, and in a year of change, that might give him the chance to pull off an upset. That will only happen, however, if nice guy Martin decides heíll take the fight to Saxby.