Thurbert Baker And Why Politics Must Be More Than Skin Deep
Can Baker win?
by JASON PYE on FEBRUARY 25, 2010
Is there a path to victory in the Democratic primary for Thurbert Baker? The folks from Landmark Communications think so:
Some conventional political analysts have written off the Democratic primary election as a sure-thing Barnes victory.
Remember, Barnes badly lost the Gov primary in 1990, and also lost in 2002 with millions in the bank, becoming the only Georgia Governor to lose re-election since the state started allowing Governors to run for re-election in the 1970s. In fact, he’s lost more than he’s won.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker is the highest-ranking African-American official in the state, and he has been uncontroversial to the general public. We at Landmark are projecting that around 55% of Democratic primary voters in July will be African-American — the highest percentage in history. It’s entirely likely that Baker could roll up big numbers with black voters, most of whom have become active after Barnes was Governor.
My friends over at Peach Pundit have a discussion going over the Democratic gubernatorial primary prospects of current attorney general Thurbert Baker. They’ve linked to an analysis from Landmark Communications — which boasts some of the state’s most veteran political consultants and pollster-types — which notes that a race which has seemingly been dominated by big names like DuBose Porter, David Poythress, and former governor Roy Barnes could potentially be shaken up by the presence of Baker.
Their evidence for this relies on two postulates. One, they project that the July primary will be composed with a very large African American vote (55%). I’ve got no real expertise with running the numbers on this sort of stuff, but I wouldn’t doubt their figure. All previous Democratic primaries in the state relied heavily on African American votes, and they comprised the majority of votes in all of our recent elections.
The second postulate is what bothers me. They claim that Baker’s status as the highest-ranking African American official (that is pretty much a fact) and “uncontroversial” tenure means that he’s likely to net “big numbers” among “black voters.” They even float the possibility of him grabbing 64 % of the African American vote and 19% of the caucasian vote, essentially placing himself in the lock for the nomination and avoiding a primary with any of his opponents.
This scenario that they’ve created seems to rely on a single idea — that black voters will want to vote for Baker because he’s black. The Landmark analysts conclude, “If African-American voters simply decide they want an African-American nominee who could run on an ethics message, then [Baker will] be the nominee.”
Saying that a group of individuals from a certain race or ethnic group will automatically vote for someone of their race or ethnic group isn’t new, and it often isn’t wrong, either. It’s very common for hispanics, or African Americans, or Jewish Americans to get together and elect people who they feel represent their communities.
It makes perfect sense, really. Certain communities have different concerns. For example, Latino Americans tend to have strong concerns about immigration issues (and for good reason). And Muslim Americans tend to favor candidates who want to civil liberties issues (and for good reason).
But what makes the Landmark Communications analysis so disturbing to me is that it doesn’t assume that that Baker will get the black vote because he’s addressing issues that are relevant to that community — like unfair lender practices in urban Atlanta, or police excesses in the drug war. It’s assuming that Baker will get the vast majority of the black vote simply because he’s the same color as the voters. And that’s wrong.
It’s wrong for two reasons. The one that’s most obvious, and I’m sure readers who aren’t from Georgia will jump to this one first, is that it demeans the African American community by saying they’ll vote for someone just because they look like them. This was pretty flatly proven false in the last round of the Georgia Democratic Senate primary, where the caucasian Jim Martin crushed African American Vernon Jones, largely with the help of the working-class, progressive African American base. African American voters saw Jones as the conservative that he was (this was a man who bragged about voting for Bush twice) and voted for the candidate who they felt better represented their interests, not the one who looked like them. This same dynamic came to play in the primary challenge against progressive Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) in 2008, where a conservative African American close to former Rep. Harold Ford (D-TN) tried to defeat the caucasian Cohen partially by drawing attention to his race (it was a stunning failure).
Which brings me to the second reason. To say that African Americans will automatically jump to supporting Thurbert Baker because he’s the same race as them is an even more outrageous claim when you understand exactly who the attorney general is and what he has done with respect to the African American community.
Seven years ago, Genarlow Wilson, a seventeen year old black male, had consensual (not in the legal sense, as you can’t give consent until sixteen in Georgia, but you know what I mean) oral sex with a fifteen year old at a New Years’ Eve party. Because Georgia’s sex offender laws at the time only applied to vaginal sex, Wilson wasn’t able to be convinced under statutory rape laws. Yet a jury convicted him of aggravated child molestation, and the judge gave him a minimum of ten years in prison. What would’ve been a misdemeanor if the two had full-on intercourse (and a minor jail sentence at most) turned into something that threatened to ruin Wilson’s life.
Thankfully, the Superior Court of Monroe County stepped in, reducing Wilson’s jailtime to a year and some community service. But as the court attempted to do this, one man stepped in their way.
Baker immediately appealed the decision, stopped Wilson from being released. Despite a national outcry — a New York Times editorial slammed the Georgian legal system for placing a seventeen year old in this position — and legislative changes within Georgia — the legislature moved to close the loophole in the sex offender laws, requiring that it would be a misdemeanor if such a case occurred again — Baker held fast to his position, earning additional rebukes from the national media and even former president Jimmy Carter, who noted in a letter to Baker that noted that white defendants who were in the position that Wilson was in were not treated anywhere nearly as harshly.
Eventually, after twice denying to hear Wilson’s case, the Supreme Court of Georgia intervened and ordered Wilson immediately released, citing cruel and unusual punishment. Today, Wilson is a free man. But because of Baker’s intervention, he wasted years of his life behind bars for what really amounts to a misdemeanor.
And this isn’t the only case where Baker decided to apply his authoritarian, tough-on-crime standards. He’s been a “vigorous defender” of the Georgia GOP’s proposed voter ID laws, which are, to be kind, notorious for disenfranchising the elderly, minorities, and the poor. In the Georgia state house, he was a firebrand advocate of the state’s “two strikes” law, a “tough on crime” measure that has done little to reduce crime but has netted Georgia the largest prison population in the country. While political figures as diverse as the Pope to paleoconservative Bob Barr to the international human rights organization Amnesty International came to the aid of death row inmate Troy Davis, whose highly controversial and flawed trial is perhaps the most obviously worthy of an appeal of any, Baker stood by the rulings of previous courts and refused to push for a re-examination of the man’s case, saying that it is the “correct decision” to deny appeals to a man in a case where 7 of 9 witnesses to the supposed murder have recanted their stories.
Indeed, on issue after issue, Baker has found himself using his power in ways that have significantly harmed the African American community. The usual excuse you get for for politicians of a certain demographic group working against the interest of that group is that they’re intentionally overcompensating. They don’t want to be seen as “soft-on-crime black politicians” or “dovish female politicians,” so they engage in senseless wars or criminal justice policies that don’t work in the long run to win over a skeptical public.
From a political perspective, this does make some level of sense. There’s a reason Thurbert Baker is the African American ever elected statewide in Georgia. He’s seen as someone who is conservative and “tough on crime” and willing to crack to ignore protests from more progressive African Americans.
But at the same time, while pollsters may be grinning from ear to ear at the electoral prospects of such a candidate, the people who will actually live under the policies of such a politician will continue to suffer. I predict that if Baker is elected the governor of Georgia, he’ll continue to to side with brutal and ineffective criminal justice policies, and he’ll continue to pander to conservatives and end up finding the Saxby Chamblisses of the state much more ideologically in sync with him than the John Lewises.
And if that happens, we’ll see a lot more Genarlow Wilsons and Troy Davises — people suffering because some politician decided that they needed to be thrown under the bus so they could advance up the next rung of the political ladder.
Speaking of Genarlow Wilson, I know a conservative Republican state representative. I won’t tell you his name, because I had this conversation with him a long time ago, and I don’t know if he’d want it to be on the record. At the time, the state was debating its sex offender laws (actually partly in response to the Wilson case). This legislator, though a staunch social conservative who often found himself in the same room with a glaring ACLU lobbyist, found cases like Wilson’s very disturbing. He knew that kids have sex sometimes, and while we shouldn’t encourage people to be doing things like that below the age of consent, ruining their lives over it makes no real sense. These things shouldn’t be a felony, he thought. But at the same time, he told me, he knew that being where he was, as a conservative legislator in a conservative party, if he were to side with the civil libertarians on this one, he could easily be knocked out by an opponent who ran ads claiming he was soft on sex offenders. And that’s not an ad any politician wants to have to run against.
Yet when all was said and done, the laws were changed. They were changed because this legislator was brave enough to stand against the grain and fear-mongering attack ads and a barrage of invective from people on his own side of the aisle, and to fight on the issue and to make sure that there would be a lot less Genarlow Wilsons in the future. What that legislator did took courage, and that’s not the kind of courage that’s found in Thurbert Baker, the kind that I think an African American community whose interests are so often thrown overboard by the state legislature really needs.
You can argue that an African American can’t be elected statewide yet unless they are exactly like Thurbert Baker, willing to win over white conservatives by selling out people like Wilson and Davis. But that choice is for African Americans themselves to make, and if Baker’s allies are willing to make the bet that African American voters are going to break for him simply because of the color of the skin and not because of the content of his character — as one great African American once put it — I’m willing to bet he’s wrong. And that’s for the best, in my opinion, because politics has to be more than skin deep.