The Georgia Democratic Party started its meeting Saturday without a leader to run the state party organization and without a candidate to join the Republicans challenging Gov. Nathan Deal. They ended the four-hour gathering with both.
More than 200 party stalwarts gathered in Newnan to tap former House Minority Leader DuBose Porter as the party’s new chairman. And former state Sen. Connie Stokes roamed the crowd trying to build support for a run against Deal. She’s the first Democrat to announce a bid against any of the statewide constitutional officers.
Porter’s victory was a rebuke of powerful party leaders. He prevailed over former state Sen. Doug Stoner, who was endorsed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Gov. Roy Barnes. Another candidate, Rockdale County Tax Commissioner R.J. Hadley, finished a distant third.
His formidable task involves shoring up the flagging organization’s finances, recruiting candidates to represent the party and crafting a message to make inroads in a state where Republicans hold every state office, a majority of congressional seats and a commanding majority in the state Legislature.
A titanic struggle awaits. The party has fought to stay financially afloat amid fundraising woes. Its former chairman, Mike Berlon, resigned in June amid mounting legal problems and growing pushback from Democratic chiefs. And despite a cadre of rising leaders, the party has mustered few candidates for the slew of statewide and congressional seats.
With Saturday’s developments, though, state Democrats sought to show their ship was no longer keeling.
The party said it had tallied $152,000 in assets, thanks to fundraising calls by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Decatur and Mayor Reed. The party’s treasurer, Lester Jackson, said the organization slashed payroll and expenses after Berlon’s resignation to lure donors back.
“This was not easy, let me tell you,” he said. “We had to make some decisions and cut our budget. That frankly hurt a lot of people. But we as a party are starting to move forward and roll in the black.”
Stokes’ candidacy was another effort to muster unity. The 59-year-old consultant is little-known, but she gives the party the first counterpoint to Deal in his bid for re-election. Superintendent John Barge on Friday announced he would challenge Deal in the GOP primary, joining Dalton Mayor David Pennington in the intraparty scrap.
“We want jobs that pay well, and open and honest government,” said Stokes, who provided scant details but said a more formal rollout will come in weeks. “I want to make sure that we move this state forward, and I understand that I cannot do that without your help.”
Porter, for his part, promised to revive the party’s fundraising and position Democrats to take advantage of changing demographics that partisans hope could turn the state blue before the decade’s end.
“We’ve got a big job ahead of us. You know me and I know you,” Porter said. “We don’t have two Georgias, we have three. We have the Georgia that was, the Georgia that is, and we have the Georgia that can be. We can’t do the same things we’ve been doing.”