Political Notebook: Roy Barnes treads lightly around the flag poll these days
May 30, 2010
By Larry Peterson
It’s a remarkable TV ad.
Former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, who wants us to give him his old job back, sits in a church pew.
"As governor," he intones, "my heart was in the right place, but I didn’t listen or slow down to explain why I had to make some difficult decisions. For that, I apologize."
His campaign manager, Chris Carpenter, reluctantly acknowledges what many others assume.
That is, Barnes is apologizing at least in part for the way he handled the racially charged controversy over the state flag.
While many whites saw it as a symbol of Southern heritage, blacks saw it as one of segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement.
In 2002, Barnes muscled through legislation that did away with the old banner, dominated by the Confederate battle emblem.
Backlash from conservative white voters helped Republican Sonny Perdue oust Barnes that November.
A little later, the state changed the flag again, dumping the Barnes-backed design that even some supporters termed ugly.
The new – and current – design also has a Confederate pedigree, but never symbolized resistance to civil rights.
Barnes seems willing to leave well enough alone.
"We ain’t changing it no more," he said recently in a jocular aside that drew laughter from his audience at a Fulton County forum.
Interestingly, though, the apology ad seems to have run everywhere in the state except majority-black Atlanta.
So it’s hard not to wonder whether Barnes may be reluctant to second-guess himself there on how he handled the flag flap.
Nonsense, says Carpenter.
Because the Atlanta market is dense with viewers, it’s the most expensive in the state, and Barnes’ campaign wants to use its money wisely, he said.
Sure, Barnes has more money than anyone else in the race, he added, but much less than he had in 2002, when he spent $20 million – and lost.
Not that he’s written off the Atlanta TV market; he started running another ad there last week.
In any case, Barnes was a born-again flag changer.
As state senator, he was among those who dug in their heels as his predecessor, Zell Miller, launched a drive in 1992 to get rid of the old flag.
In 1993, Barnes co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have denied state funds to local jurisdictions that wouldn’t fly it.
It may also be worth noting that, when the Senate passed a bill in 1984 to establish a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Barnes missed the vote. But he said later he would have voted nay.
"My people are just not for it," he told the Marietta Daily Journal, "and … my first duty is to my district."
Barnes was elected governor in 1998. Pressure to change the flag was again building. But commentators such as Dick Yarbrough weren’t sure where he would come down on the issue.
For whatever reason – Carpenter is a bit vague – the governor yielded to the winds of change.
"As governor," Carpenter said, "Roy had to deal with the realities that the state faced at the time. It was the right thing to do, and he is glad that it is behind us."
It may well be for most of us, but it’s easy to imagine Barnes sometimes wonders whether it’s completely behind him.
After all, the blowback against his concession to the winds of change also helped blow him out of office in 2002.
Now, as in 2002, the whole state is his district.
Perhaps he’s not quite as sure as he was in 1984 who his people are – or what they’re for.
So he treads lightly about the flagpole these days.
Almost as if whistling while tiptoeing past the graveyard, he sometimes jokes about the issue, as he did at the Fulton County event.
And now he’s apologized for the way he handled it – even if not for the course he chose.
But – for whatever reason – not to everyone.
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