By Michael Thurmond:
For Georgia Democrats, the 1998 election was a watershed. First, Democrats retained control of the governor's office, the legislature, and most statewide offices despite leadpipe-cinch predictions of a Republican landslide and realignment. Second, two African-Americans won statewide office, showing that message trumps race and that biracial coalitions trump polarized voting when the message is right.
Thurbert Baker, a former state legislator who had recently been appointed attorney general by Gov. Zell Miller, became the first African-American in any Deep South state to win a full term as a state's chief legal officer. And I was elected commissioner of labor. We were two of only nine blacks to win statewide executive branch office anywhere in America in 1998.
The race for labor commissioner is particularly instructive. My victory marked the first time that an African-American was elected statewide in Georgia without having been first appointed to the position. I had to fight my way through the Democratic primary and runoff against better financed white candidates. In the general election, my Republican opponent retained a consulting firm headed by Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition president who is now chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. Reed ran a campaign with the race-baiting slogan: "The difference is as clear as black and white."
How were we able to do it? Mainly because we shared a centrist message with the two leading white candidates for statewide office -- Roy Barnes (running for governor) and Mark Taylor (running for lieutenant governor). We ran on themes of personal responsibility, fiscal discipline, equal opportunity, education and training, and improvement of Georgia's quality of life (especially in Atlanta's gridlocked suburbs). We also ran on our records: I was able to talk about my success as a former state welfare director in initiating work-based welfare reform in Georgia. I promised that as labor commissioner, I would push for reductions in employer taxes, better unemployment insurance benefits, and a major upgrade of our training and retraining programs for the New Economy.
It is significant that in a Deep South state, where three out of every four voters are white, Republican attempts to polarize voters along racial lines failed or backfired. All four of us won solidly against the odds. Thanks to our common message, we each won roughly equal parts of the black and the white vote in every county in the state.
Voters did not simply reject racially divisive appeals; they responded positively to our centrist message. For starters, we energized the traditional Democratic core constituencies. The African-American vote jumped from 19 percent of the total in 1994 to 29 percent in 1998 -- a higher percentage than the African-American proportion of registered voters, and by far the largest increase in the country. The New Democrat ticket of Barnes, Taylor, Baker, and Thurmond won 90 percent of that dramatically increased black vote. But by campaigning as centrists, we also did well in the Republican-leaning suburbs (which themselves include a rapidly growing African-American middle class) and even in parts of conservative rural Georgia.
The existence of an informal "control group" in our election convinces me that our biracial voting coalition was driven by our centrist message. The "control" consisted of two statewide Democratic candidates -- one black, one white -- who ran on a more traditionally liberal message; they both lost.
More proof that message and record trumped race were the election results in the eight counties of the North Georgia mountains -- heavily white, and often Republican. I carried all of them, while our white "control" candidate -- running to our left -- lost all eight. Moreover, in 2000, Al Gore lost all eight as well -- four of them by better than a 2-1 margin.
What this means is that we were able to create that rarest of political phenomena: a two-way biracial coalition. Not only were black voters crossing over to support white candidates (as they have always done), but, for the first time at the statewide level, white voters were supporting black candidates -- in a very close election to boot. What appealed to people was a diverse, accomplished ticket united around a New Democrat message of opportunity, responsibility, and community.
Despite the presidential loss in 2000 -- Gore lost the state by 12 percent -- Georgia Democrats look strong for the 2002 elections. Those of us who were successful in 1998 are hard at work making good on our promise to extend the state's progress in directions that a majority of Georgians want to go.
The lesson Georgia offers the national Democratic Party is that you don't have to choose between the "base" and "swing voters" in the South or elsewhere -- a diverse New Democrat ticket appeals to both. And the lesson for Democrats in the South is even clearer: Aggressively recruit young, centrist African-Americans to run for office who will not only help energize and represent "the base" -- especially the growing ranks of African-American middle-class moderates -- but whose message has genuine appeal across racial lines. As we showed in Georgia, we can not only win elections; we can finally begin to banish the curse of racially divisive politics.
Now in his third term as the head of the state Labor Department, Athens native Michael Thurmond's job is to help Georgians find work. Thurmond, well-respected and a rising star in the Democratic Party, is focusing on some innovative ways to help people land gainful employment, even if they're not skilled at searching for a job.
Michael Thurmond was born in rural Clarke County, the youngest of the nine children of the late Sidney and Vanilla Thurmond. He graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Paine College in 1975 and later earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law. In 1991, he completed the political executives program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In 1978, Michael Thurmond returned to Athens to practice law and took an active role in that city's civic and political affairs. In 1986, he became the first African-American elected to the Georgia General Assembly from Clarke County since reconstruction. During his legislative tenure, he was the only African-American legislator elected from a majority white district.
While serving in the General Assembly, Representative Thurmond authored major legislation that has provided over 100 million dollars in tax refunds to senior citizens and low-income working families.
In 1994, then Governor Zell Miller selected him to direct Georgia's historic transition from welfare to work. He created the innovative "Workfirst" program, which has helped over 90,000 welfare-dependent Georgia families move into the workforce, saving Georgia taxpayers over 200 million dollars. These savings have been reinvested in childcare, training and other support services.
In 1997, he became the distinguished practitioner/lecturer at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. On November 3, 1998, Michael Thurmond was elected Georgia Labor Commissioner. Thurmond presently chairs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Georgia State Holiday Commission.
He is awaiting the publication of his second book entitled "Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia," and also serves on the Board of Curators of the Georgia Historical Society.
Commissioner Thurmond is a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church West of Athens. He and his wife Zola are the proud parents of a daughter, Mikaya.
During his term as Labor Commissioner, Michael Thurmond has:
Led the effort to cut employer taxes by $1.4 billion while increasing weekly unemployment benefits from $240 to $320.
Transformed the state's old "unemployment offices" into modern, state-of-the-art career centers and increased productivity by deploying cutting edge information technology.
Established the Georgia Department of Labor as a national leader in putting the unemployed back to work and in preventing and detecting waste, fraud and abuse.
Michael Thurmond was born in rural Clarke County, the youngest of nine children of the late Sidney and Vanilla Thurmond. He graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Paine College in 1975 and later earned a Juris Doctorate degree form the University of South Carolina School of Law.
In 1978, Thurmond returned to Athens to practice law and took an active role in that city's civic and political affairs. In 1986, he became the first African-American elected to the Georgia General Assembly from Clarke County since Reconstruction. During his legislative tenure, he was the only African-American legislator elected from a majority white district.
While serving in the General Assembly, Representative Thurmond authored major legislation that has provided over $200 million in tax refunds to Georgia's senior citizens and low-income working families.
In 1994, Governor Zell Miller called on Thurmond to direct Georgia's transition from welfare to work. He created the innovative "Workfirst" program, which has helped over 90,000 welfare-dependent families move into the workforce, saving Georgia taxpayers over $200 million. Thurmond was elected Labor Commissioner in November of 1998.
In 1997, Thurmond became the Distinguished Practitioner/Lecturer at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. In 2005, He published his acclaimed second book entitled "Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia."
Commissioner Thurmond is a member of the Ebenezer West Baptist Church of Athens. He and his wife Zola are the proud parents of a daughter Mikaya.
Thurmond future has a very bright future in the party. He has been mentioned as a candidate for Lt. Governor & that may still be the case. He also is mentioned for other races such as Secretary of State, U.S. Senate, or remain at Labor Commissioner. But if Roy Barnes does not run for governor, it wold not shock me if he ran for governor even though Thurbert Baker has already announced his intentions.