Roy Barnes' Campaign of Contrition

Photo courtesy of Roy 2010

ATLANTA — In his campaign to become Georgia's next governor, Roy Barnes is relying on an unusual combination of personal attributes: competence and contrition.

The competence comes from the fact that Barnes has held the office before, from 1999 to 2003. As governor, he passed an aggressive slate of education reforms, tackled traffic congestion in the Atlanta area and launched an economic development program for rural areas. What he's contrite about is how he got to some of those accomplishments. Barnes' top-down governing style led critics to call him arrogant. In one of the biggest political upsets in Georgia history, he was ousted by Republican Sonny Perdue, who can't run for re-election this year because of term limits.

So in his quest to get his old job back, Barnes is spending a significant amount of time apologizing to various constituencies and introducing voters to a new, more humble Roy Barnes, re-branded as simply "Roy." His opening television ad , which began airing in May, features him seated in the pews of a church and takes on an almost confessional tone: "As governor," he says, "my heart was in the right place, but I didn't listen or slow down to explain why I had to make some difficult decisions. For that, I apologize."

The new Roy Barnes is billing himself as a reluctant draftee who is willing to sacrifice a relaxing retirement and time with his grandkids because of the frustration of having been benched during a critical juncture in the state's history. A little older and wiser from his experiences, he's preaching the need for competence and common sense. He's calling for a return to fundamentals of state government — education, infrastructure, job creation — and away from divisive partisan issues.

Barnes surprised many observers — and himself, he acknowledged in an interview with Stateline — by making it through the Democratic primary without a runoff. And in a significant shift, a recent poll put Barnes only 4 points behind his Republican opponent, former Congressman Nathan Deal.

"Amazingly, Roy Barnes remains in contention despite the fact that the head of his party nationally, Barack Obama, has reached a phenomenally low level of support in Georgia," says Matt Towery, the CEO of InsideAdvantage, the firm that conducted the poll. Virtually as many Georgia voters identify as independents as identify with either party, Towery notes, and "the race really boils down to independent voters."

Those are voters Barnes thinks he can sway — if they'll forgive him for what soured them on him the last time around. "He was a hands-on, results-oriented governor," says former Congressman Buddy Darden, who has been friends with Barnes for more than 40 years and is a close adviser. "No one questioned his competence. No one questioned his ability. He made several decisions that could be faulted one way or another as being politically unfortunate, but no one questioned his ability to do the job."

"Too much too fast"

During his first term in office, Barnes paid a big political price for many of his accomplishments. In 2000, he pushed through the state Legislature a big package of education reforms that included annual student testing, school choice and linking teacher pay to performance. But a measure ending tenure for new teachers overshadowed the other efforts. Teachers perceived Barnes to be blaming them for the failures of the education system, and the Georgia Association of Educators, a key teachers union, paid him back by not endorsing him in his 2002 campaign for re-election.

Another controversy arose over Barnes' push to change the Georgia state flag to minimize the prominence of a Confederate symbol. Barnes angered legislators by putting the change on a fast track that allowed little time to debate a controversial measure with complicated cultural roots in the state.

Darden says that Barnes tried to do too much too fast and alienated politically powerful constituencies. "One of Roy's faults as governor is that he is so smart, he gets everything and makes a decision," Darden says. "But people appreciate process a little bit. He could be faulted for not bringing enough input in, not listening to enough people. You get to the same place, but you just take a little time and you get in there."

In his first term, Barnes also was accused of using his office to angle for a position in Washington with greater national prestige. The new Roy, however, has firmly distanced himself from national politics, even steering clear of President Obama during his recent visit to Georgia. "If I could give some advice to my friends in Washington, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, it'd be to quit worrying about everything else and just concentrate on how we create jobs," Barnes says.

Deal and the Republican Governors Association are trying to steer the attention back to Washington by linking Barnes to Obama at every opportunity. "Our president has traveled the globe apologizing for America; Our former governor has traveled the state apologizing for his first term in office," says the narrator of a 30-second Republican Governors Association ad that manages to squeeze in the words "sorry" or "apologize" at least 12 times.

Barnes argues that his apologies are sincere and his opponents uncouth: "I think [apologizing] is a good thing rather than a bad thing," he says. "RGA is going contrary to what my mama taught me when I was a kid and what I was taught in Sunday School." Congressman Deal and all members of Congress ought to apologize, as well, for not doing a better job of managing the government, Barnes says. "I don't think either party has lived up to its potential of governing without acrimony or partisanship."

Whether this approach will resonate with Georgia voters is a source of much debate in Georgia politics. Tommy Hills, the state's chief financial officer and a top Perdue aide, thinks the overtures might be a smart move on Barnes' part. "If he's able to portray himself as a humble person, I would think it has more benefit than detriment to him, because I don't think most voters who have some opinion of Governor Barnes would think he's a very reticent or shy person," Hills says. "Contrition may play in his favor."

Barnes' longtime friend Darden puts it this way: " Some people think it's groveling, but you know, the world loves a reformed sinner. But he's done that now, and as we go into the general election, you'll see a little bit of a different campaign."

Surprise defeat

The need for the re-branding of Roy Barnes has its roots in his 2002 campaign against Perdue, who was then a little-known state legislator and the clear underdog. Barnes outspent Perdue by a ratio of 7-to-1, but Perdue nevertheless went on to win and become Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years.

Many observers credit a famous Perdue campaign video for not only helping him take down the incumbent but also tarnishing Barnes' image in long-lasting ways. The controversial ad cast a giant rat in the Godzilla-like role of "King Roy," and identified him as such with gold tags dangling from an oversized necklace. "This wily old trial lawyer just thought he knew better than us on any subject," the narrator says, as the giant rat tramples through downtown Atlanta before pausing to give a noisy smooch to the Capitol dome.

Barnes' surprise defeat also was driven in part by aggressive grassroots campaigning by Governor Perdue at football games and potlucks in rural pockets of the state in south and middle Georgia — a strategy that Barnes has fully embraced in the current campaign. Perdue, a licensed pilot, was able to move quickly around the state by campaigning in his own plane. "My little airplane was probably worth about $22 million, because that was the difference between what my opponent spent and what I spent," Perdue says. "He was everywhere that I was, except he was on television and I was there in person."

Up until Election Day, no one in either camp expected Perdue — who all polls showed trailing Barnes by at least 10 points — to defeat Barnes. "Everybody felt assured that Barnes was going to be re-elected," says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Perdue's more deferential relationship with the Legislature stands in dramatic contrast to the approach that Barnes took as governor. In fact, Perdue acknowledged in an interview, it was frustration with Barnes' style and top-down approach, rather than particular policy differences, that  persuaded him to enter the race. "That began to bother me as a citizen from an internal perspective," he says. "That's not the way I believe that a democratic republic should operate."

Perdue doesn't buy in to the new Barnes. " I don't see a different Roy Barnes in 2010 than I saw in 2002," he says. "I think it's all about him or I think he thinks it's all about him. It's not about the people of Georgia, and I believe the people of Georgia are just as smart or smarter than they were in 2002 and they'll figure that out."

The economy is worse now than it was in 2002, however, and that may work to Barnes' advantage. Although Perdue continued with many of the education reforms Barnes put in place, recent budget cuts have resulted in teacher furloughs and increased class sizes. Against that backdrop, Barnes' campaign of contrition bore fruit last week when the Georgia Association of Educators — the teachers' union that abandoned Barnes in 2002 — announced that it is supporting his campaign in 2010.

"It's no secret that he made the teachers mad," says Barbara Christmas, who served as the head of another teachers union while Barnes was governor and is supporting his current campaign. "But it was more about rhetoric than reality." 


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