ATLANTA -- Georgia's labor commissioner said Wednesday he will run this year for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Johnny Isakson.
Michael Thurmond, one of the most prominent black Democrats in the state, said he is running to improve the lives of Georgia residents. The U.S. Senate has lost most of its minority members in recent years and the only black U.S. senator, Roland Burris of Illinois, isn't running in November.
Thurmond, an Athens native, will need to win the Democratic primary in July against a lesser known opponent, former Rockdale County chief of staff and first-time candidate R.J. Hadley. The winner will face an uphill fight against Isakson, who has more than $4 million in the bank for his re-election bid.
With his wife, Zola, at his side, and standing under a portrait of Georgia founder James Oglethorpe in the rotunda of the Capitol, Thurmond told the crowd of supporters and media that going to the Senate was the best way for him to help Georgians.
"It's time to send someone to Washington who will put you and your family first," Thurmond said. "At this critical juncture in the history of our nation, we need servant leaders in Washington who will forsake political expediency and partisan gridlock."
Thurmond has served three terms as labor commissioner. Before that he served as a state lawmaker and head of the state's Department of Family and Children's Services.
Isakson recently returned to the campaign trail after being hospitalized for a bacterial infection and an irregular heartbeat.
Isakson issued a statement Wednesday that he is energized and ready to campaign aggressively for a second term. The statement did not mention Thurmond by name.
"Georgians will get to choose whether they want someone who represents their conservative values or someone who will push the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda of government health care, cap and trade taxes, skyrocketing debt, auto bailouts, government takeover of student loans, jobless stimulus packages, terrorist trials in U.S. courts and forced unionization of private sector employees by repealing their secret ballot," Isakson said.
Thurmond, an attorney and historian, is known as an energetic campaigner who can deliver a speech and whip up a campaign rally. He is one of just three Democrats who currently hold statewide elected office in Georgia. All are set to step aside this year.
Georgia has voted increasingly Republican in recent years. A Democrat hasn't won an open statewide seat since Gov. Roy Barnes arrived in the governor's mansion in 1998.
But Thurmond on Wednesday pointed out that he has been elected statewide more than once.
"My Georgia never turned red," he quipped. "The people of Georgia don't care as much about party."
During his announcement, Thurmond became emotional as he talked about being the ninth child of illiterate sharecroppers and who then "rose above that through hard work and faith ... to seek the highest office in the state of Georgia."
Thurmond says he's been courted by state and national Democrats to run against Isakson. Just two years after Democrats in Georgia forced Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff, Isakson looked like he might get a pass this year.
Isakson has been campaigning on the popular homebuyer tax credit, which he claims helped spur a recovery in the housing market.
Thurmond has been at the helm in the labor department as the state's jobless rate has reached a record-high 10.6 percent. He has been credited with programs throughout the state designed to help Georgians get back to work.
He said the economy was the main catalyst that pushed him into the race.
"This recession has changed me and my philosophy of public service," Thurmond said. "I realized I needed to focus not on the next election, but on the next generation."
Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.