Dems hope to spark comeback

The four Democrats vying to become the party's next state chairman agree by and large on the factors that have relegated their once-dominant coalition to minority status.

They even agree on what needs to be done for Democrats to begin recovering from three straight devastating election cycles in Georgia.

But the two men and two women bring different life experiences and skill sets to next weekend's chairmanship election in Atlanta that each says would make him or her best suited to lead the party out of the wilderness.

The 300 or so members of the state Democratic Committee will choose between Gwinnett County Democratic Chairman Mike Berlon, former state Sen. Carol Jackson of Cleveland, former state Rep. Jane Kidd of Athens and Savannah pastor Jim Nelson, the Democrats' candidate in the 1st Congressional District last fall.

Although Berlon has run for public office twice - for Congress in 2002 and the state Public Service Commission in 2004 - he is the consummate political insider of the race for chairman.

He has been Gwinnett's Democratic chairman for the last four years and has close ties with his colleagues around the state as vice chairman of the Georgia Association of Democratic County Chairs.

Kidd, on the other hand, is more closely aligned with the party's elected leaders. She served the last two years in the House but lost a bid for the Senate last fall in a district that had been redrawn by the Legislature's Republican majority, making it difficult turf for any Democrat to win.

Berlon and Kidd agree that Democrats sowed the seeds of their recent losses in Georgia during the many decades that the party controlled the governor's office.

Until former Gov. Roy Barnes' upset loss to Republican challenger Sonny Perdue in 2002, the Democratic Party operated out of the governor's office, leaving the chairmanship as a ceremonial post.

"We became an offshoot of the governor's campaign ... fat and happy,'' Berlon said. "We don't have that luxury anymore.''

Indeed, Barnes' defeat was accompanied by the loss of Max Cleland's U.S. Senate seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss.

Within days of that, four Democratic state senators switched parties, giving the GOP control of the Senate.

Republicans went on in 2004 to capture the state's other U.S. Senate seat and win a majority of the Georgia House, giving the GOP complete control of the General Assembly.

The string of Republican victories continued last fall with the re-election of Perdue and the election of Georgia's first GOP lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Republicans also held onto their legislative majorities.

To get back on the winning track, Berlon said Democrats need what he called a "ground game,'' a grass-roots strategy that builds from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Kidd, daughter of the late Gov. Ernest Vandiver, said her party need look no further than to Georgia Republicans for a model.

"Republicans had 14 to 15 years to work from the grass-roots,'' she said. "They've done it right. That's why they are where they are today.''

Jackson and Nelson say they are particularly well suited to appeal to groups of voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves in recent years: rural Georgians and Christians, respectively.

Jackson served three terms in the state Senate representing a district in the North Georgia mountains, leaving office in 2004.

She considered running for secretary of state last year but said she found that winning statewide nomination as a rural Democrat would be too much of an uphill climb.

That, she said, led her to realize that the Democratic Party in Georgia has strayed too far from its rural roots.

"I think the party has got to be brought back to a more centrist position,'' she said. "Rural Georgia is feeling left out.''

Nelson said his experience as a Methodist minister has made him the motivational speaker Democrats need in a chairman to stir the party's rank and file to work harder and donate more money.

Beyond that, he said Democrats need a chairman who can show Christian voters that Democratic candidates believe in the same values they do, from looking out for the needy to protecting the environment.

"We are not anti-religion,'' he said. "A lot of the things we do are consistent with scripture.''

While the candidates agree on the broad strategies Democrats must pursue to start their comeback in Georgia, two mentioned specific projects they would pursue if elected chairman.

Berlon said he would open several satellite offices around the state as a way to combat the perception that the Democrats have become a party of metro Atlanta.

Nelson said he would seek to make better use of the Internet to communicate the party's message and to bolster get-out-the-vote efforts.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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