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Kahn looks back as Dems change course

A fixture in Georgia Democratic politics since the 1980s, state party chairman Bobby Kahn exits the public stage with guns blazing this weekend.

"Though I've worked in the party 25 years, the current state Republican administration is doing more than I ever did to build the Democratic Party. Voters have figured out that the Republicans' pious rhetoric about the sanctity of marriage and family values is just a cover-up for hanky-panky and greed. They don't care what's good for Georgians - just what's good for them," Kahn declared as he heads for the door. The state Democratic committee will elect his successor.

The 48-year-old Kahn managed the party at the peak of its power in the late 1980s and 1990s. Kahn's Democrats maintained solid dominance in Georgia, even as the rest of the South went Republican.

Alas, Kahn also presided over the Dems, in one leadership role or another, as they crashed and burned in the first three elections of the 21st century. Though changes in demographics and in the state's political climate made the GOP sweeps inevitable, several leading Democrats blamed Kahn.

The chairman shrugs. "Former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe said the party chair is a 'human fire hydrant.' I've been through a lot of raincoats," Kahn said. He counts among his greatest achievements his assistance with the 2006 campaigns of Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow, who won re-election in supposedly solid Republican districts.

Without Kahn at its helm, the state Democratic Party is obviously heading in a new direction. The odds-on favorite to become the new Democratic chairman is Mike Berlon, the Gwinnett County chair, who says he trained for politics at the knee of Jerry Springer in Ohio. This is the same Jerry Springer who has earned millions with a rude and crude TV show starring America's white trash. Berlon also ran for Congress but failed to file required FEC reports.

"With a background like that, Berlon might be more suited for a post in the Georgia Republican Party or maybe in the state House," one leading Democrat says, apparently referring to recent Republican scandals involving extramarital affairs and funny-money land deals.

Several old-guard politicians were critical of Kahn for filing an "unsubstantiated" ethics complaint against House Speaker Glenn Richardson for "an improper relationship" with a female Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist. The episode occurred while AGL tried to gain legislative approval of a giant, unregulated pipeline.

"Richardson's behavior is a reflection on the entire state and of Richardson's attitude about his public responsibilities. The refusal of his peers to act on Richardson's conduct is indicative of the arrogant attitude of the current state leadership," Kahn fumes.

The departing chairman is not quite as hard, at first, on Gov. Sonny Perdue. He terms the governor "a brilliant political tactician" and then adds: "He knows what works. He doesn't tackle any tough issues and puts off problems until another day. That's good politics all right, but terrible policy. ... Perdue is Georgia's least ethical governor in modern times." Kahn reels off a list of alleged improprieties, ranging from the Oaky Woods real estate deals to customized tax breaks.

Looking back over his career as a Democratic counselor, Kahn says his advocacy of Zell Miller for appointment to the U.S. Senate turned out to be "a huge disappointment." Miller became a renegade Democrat and leading spokesman for President George W. Bush.

"Zell went over the right-wing edge. How he could go from Bill Clinton - and Walter Mondale before him - to Rick Santorum and Sonny Perdue is one of the great mysteries of our time," says Kahn.

"The sad thing is that a lot of Zell's criticism of the Democratic Party is legitimate. In 2006, moderate Democrats took notice and prevailed. It's ironic, but the true 'national party no more' is Zell's new party - the Republican Party," Kahn says, referring to Miller's best-selling book on Democrats, "A National Party No More."

Kahn declines to comment on the recent book controversy surrounding an old mentor, Jimmy Carter. The chairman had rather speculate on the future of Georgia Democrats.

"We will start to pick up seats in the Legislature, especially in the suburbs. If we articulate ideas and alternatives in the areas neglected by Republicans - education, health care and traffic - we will be poised to take back the governor's office in 2010," Kahn predicts.

A legal authority on political media, Kahn is retiring from the non-paying chairmanship to return to his main business as a full-time TV-time buyer for national Democratic campaigns. He says he hopes to remain active in helping state and local Democrats raise money and plan campaigns.

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

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