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Local Politics Trip Up GOP Takeover of South

James C. Cobb is B. Phinizy Spalding distinguished professor of history at the University of Georgia. His new book, "Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South," will be published next year.

November 08, 1998|James C. Cobb

ATHENS, GA. — Going into Tuesday's elections, it looked like Georgia voters were set to make a little history by electing the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. South Carolina voters also seemed to be in a history-making frame of mind: The long senatorial career of Ernest F. Hollings, the last of an exceedingly durable but ultimately doomed breed of Southern Democrat, was teetering. The South would fully be in the grip of the Republican Party come Wednesday morning.

Yet, not only did Democrat Roy Barnes win the Georgia gubernatorial race rather handily, but the 76-year-old Hollings also retained his seat with surprising ease. Beyond that, there was the ouster of Jesse Helms protege Sen. Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina and the defeat of Republican Govs. David Beasley in South Carolina and Forrest "Fob" James Jr. in Alabama.

Was this the beginning of a Democratic comeback in the South?

What happened on election day was not so much a significant long-term reversal of Republican fortunes in the South as a reminder that here, even more than elsewhere, all politics are indeed local.

In Georgia, for example, Republican megamillionaire Guy Millner spent a reported $11.5 million of his own money on his campaign, but when visiting the University of Georgia, he laid himself a little trap from which all his money could not free him. Millner hinted that he wanted to stop granting tenure to the pointy-headed professors in the state's institutions of higher learning. When a few profs expressed alarm, Millner backed off, assuring them that he was really talking about ending tenure in the public schools. Thus, in a single stroke of political genius, Millner tried to pacify one small, generally cloutless constituency by angering a huge and powerful population of elementary- and secondary-school teachers. Millner also had to contend with the Miller factor, the endorsement of his Democratic opponent by the phenomenally popular incumbent, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, whose lottery-financed Hope scholarship program has made him a favorite even in the most staunchly Republican Georgia households.

The issues of the lottery and education also figured prominently in the South Carolina and Alabama gubernatorial races. Both these states border Georgia, and many of their citizens are tired of seeing millions of dollars go to the higher educations of Georgia students from South Carolinians and Alabamians who cross state lines to buy lottery tickets by the handful. The victorious Democrats in both these states supported lotteries as a means of keeping this cash at home and generating the revenue needed to address the abysmal conditions in their own schools.

In Alabama, throw in the Fob factor. Even the state's conservative business establishment had had enough when the incumbent governor ventured the thought that the Bill of Rights might not apply to his state and insisted on defying the U.S. Supreme Court in the matter of displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and other public spaces. Folks are partial to the Ten Commandments in South Carolina, too, but when Bible-thumping Beasley supporters attacked the video-poker industry, they crossed the fine line between preaching and meddling for lots of people who might otherwise be pillars of the church but either enjoy risking a quarter or two now and then or are proprietors of crossroads stores and other businesses where these machines are a big draw.

Finally, in the South, perhaps as nowhere else, politics remain intensely personal. Nobody understands this better than Hollings, who began his career as a segregationist and union buster and who once vowed, "We are not going to have labor unions, the NAACP and New England politicians blemish the Southern way of life." Though he was elected governor of South Carolina on a segregationist platform in 1958, before he left office, Hollings was quietly instrumental in preparing for the peaceful integration of Clemson University in 1963.

Soon after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, Hollings "discovered" hunger in South Carolina and conducted a high-profile "hunger tour" of blighted areas in 1969. Realizing that the age of segregation was over, he also sensed that antiunionism remained a very respectable prejudice in textile-laden and union-light South Carolina. Hollings always has been tight with the state's textile barons, and he received a public endorsement this year from none other than Roger Milliken, the richest and far-rightest mill man of them all. Milliken doubtless contrasted the ideologically flexible Hollings with his doctrinaire, free-trade, antiprotectionist challenger, Bob Inglis.

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