MARIETTA - Former Gov. Roy Barnes, a current 2010 gubernatorial candidate, blasted Republicans for a lack of leadership on education and transportation issues Friday night at the Cobb Democratic Party's 21st annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
Though he didn't mention anyone by name, Barnes made it clear that he has been dissatisfied with the direction the state has taken since he was voted out of office in 2002 and the GOP took control of the Governor's Mansion and both houses of the General Assembly.
"We need some non-crazy leadership," said Barnes, 61.
The keynote speaker told a packed crowd of about 175 fellow Democrats at the Doubletree Hotel on S. Park Place that a business friend of his recently asked, "Where did all these nuts come from?"
"I said they were always there, we just kind of kept them locked up. They have escaped, and they're running the place," Barnes said.
A Cobb native, Barnes said metro Atlanta is the only major metropolitan area in the world without an extensive mass transit system and that it's time to do something about the area's traffic woes.
"We have a group of leaders in this state, that are more concerned about the power over the transportation department than they are on the gridlock that all of us serve," he said.
He proposed building an elevated mass transit system over interstates and constructing sub-stations and parking lots at bridges, allowing traffic to flow underneath.
Atlantic Station in Atlanta would be the perfect east-west exchange of such a transit system, he said.
"We already have the network, use it," said Barnes. "This system can be built quickly, efficiently and it has to be done quickly and efficiently."
As governor, Barnes had set out to make education a cornerstone of his administration. However, he ran into opposition from teachers, many of whom felt alienated.
On Friday, he placed the issue back on the front burner of his campaign, lampooning Gov. Sonny Perdue's pet project, Go Fish Georgia, aimed at increasing fishing tourism.
"We have an administration today that seems to decry and want to destroy our public education system," Barnes said.
"They have cut funding for our education system by $2.2 billion. It's outrageous. We're even talking down to the fact they we're going to have to furlough teachers because we do not have enough money to pay basic classroom teachers. But yet, we can find money to Go Fish in Georgia."
Barnes said classroom sizes are key to solving educational problems. He said there shouldn't be more than 15 students in each classroom in kindergarten through third grade, and no more than 17 students in grades 4 through 5. He added that teachers needed support and the best tools available.
He also questioned why the old Tift College campus in Forsyth was turned into the state Department of Corrections headquarters instead of an educational leadership center as he had proposed as governor. He said the move showed more concern for locking people up, than educating them.
"The point I'm trying to make is we have had timid leadership on taking on difficult problems. And you can make that for a while, particularly in good economic times, you cannot do it when times are difficult," Barnes said.
The former governor's speech received loud applauses from the audience, eager to see a Democratic back in power in the governor's office. In introducing him, former Congressman Buddy Darden said Barnes was the right man to lead Georgia into a brighter future.