Black leader has no chance in state election

Santa Claus has come early for Georgia's senior senator, Saxby Chambliss. Vernon Jones has hinted strongly that he plans to oppose Chambliss for re-election in 2008. The noise from Democrat Jones' trial balloon must have been music to Chambliss' ears. It means the Republican lawmaker would be a cinch to hold onto his seat for six more years.

"Who is Vernon Jones?" you may ask. You deserve an answer.

For the past six years, he has been CEO of DeKalb County. Depending on whom you ask, you will hear one of the following: Jones has been a stellar county boss, running a huge government beset by myriad social problems, none of which are of his making - or he is a lightning rod for controversy who could not run a bubble-gum store. His jurisdiction includes the largest collection of registered black voters in the state.

If you live around Atlanta or you are a black political activist, you know Jones' name. If you reside outside the metro area and don't keep up with the intricacies of black politics, you probably never heard of him.

In any event, Jones is a potential killer of any serious Democratic challenge to Chambliss. Only a miracle would allow Jones to win an election against the Republican incumbent. He is a high-profile black leader from metro Atlanta. Those same traits suggest that only a miracle would prevent Jones from winning the Democratic nomination in the black voter-dominated Senate primary.

If you think you have seen this act before, you are right. In some political circles, it is known as the black hat trick. The most recent successful run of this scenario occurred in 2004 when so-called Democrat Zell Miller gave up his Senate seat.

On paper, a viable Democrat stood at least a fair chance of winning the empty post. And a viable Democrat - wealthy entrepreneur Cliff Oxford - indeed did set out to capture the Democratic nomination. Then black Rep. Denise Majette, a veteran of DeKalb politics, tossed her hat into the primary ring. In the primary runoff, she won in a 60-40 walk, capturing more than 95 percent of the black vote.

Republican Johnny Isakson trampled her in the general election. Majette said she ran because God advised her to. Some cynics say the GOP, not God, induced her to enter the overwhelmingly black primary. Majette never had a chance in a general election controlled by white voters.

You may think Republican consultants deserve credit here for original thinking. Sorry, the Majette ploy is a variation of an old Democratic strategy.

In 1990, conservative state Sen. Roy Barnes stood a good chance of defeating then-liberal Lt. Gov. Zell Miller for governor. Barnes was an avowed foe of gambling and other perceived liberal tendencies and had most of the Christian right on his side. All he needed to win the governorship was to get into a primary runoff against Miller.

It looked easy. Then voila! Black icon Andy Young threw his hat into the governor's race. With the black vote solidly behind him, Young pushed Barnes out of a runoff slot against Miller. The Miller-Young match was no match at all. Miller won in a landslide.

Back in 1970, black civil rights attorney C.B. King of Albany appeared out of nowhere to become the first black candidate for governor. His candidacy drove a stake into the heart of ex-Gov. Carl Sanders' bid against Jimmy Carter.

"Every vote for King meant one vote fewer for Sanders," political author James Cook noted, because Carter at the time was running a right-wingish segregationist-sounding campaign. King's candidacy put the skids under Sanders' bid, and threw the race into a runoff, which Carter won.

Carter aides later admitted that they had financed and orchestrated King's campaign, and even King said he was "not surprised to learn that Carter people" did his ads. In a sense, the late C.B. King is as responsible as anyone for putting Carter on the road to the White House.

So you see, dear reader, Jones may be about to tread a well-worn racial path. His candidacy would derail a serious Democratic challenger - one who probably needs to be white, nominally honest and from outside Atlanta.

Other, more promising career opportunities are available to DeKalb leader Jones. Winning a congressional seat ought to be easy in the 4th District. Besides, John Lewis may be nearing retirement in the 5th District - another possibility for Jones, who would not be required to move into the adjoining jurisdiction to represent it.

So why would a talented and smart politician like Jones run for the Senate, a position he knows that he cannot win even as his candidacy spoils the race for any other Democratic challenger who could prevail? Why would Vernon Jones even consider such a move? Think about it.

P.S.: Conceivably, Chambliss could face serious opposition from someone within his own party. In view of the GOP paucity of talent, however, such a challenge appears highly unlikely.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net.

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