- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

In 2001, Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes changed Georgia's flag. On Tuesday, Georgia voters changed governors.

Sonny Perdue became the first Republican elected governor of Georgia since carpetbagger Rufus Bullock, who was chased out of the state in 1871.

Mr. Barnes' redesign of the state flag, reducing its large Confederate emblem to a tiny spot, alienated many white Georgians who scorned the cluttered new design as the "Barnes rag."

But with a $20 million war chest, the Barnes campaign was confident going into Election Day. Even many Republicans thought the governor was unbeatable.

"I tried for months to tell the Republicans down here that the flag was an issue, but they wouldn't believe it," said Jim Arp, former chairman of the Floyd County Republican Party. "I told them, 'You don't understand these people won't whine and moan, they'll just go do something about it.'"

They did do something. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) followed the governor to campaign stops, displaying the old Georgia flag and anti-Barnes signs at protests. One group of SCV activists started "Project Wave," which erected hundreds of 24-foot flagpoles flying the old flag around the state.

"I think there was a backlash [over the flag change]," said Anthony Scott Hobbs, chairman of the Georgia Grassroots Republican Action Committee. The suddenness of the Barnes move ramming the measure through the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in barely a week, with little debate was a factor, he said.

Mr. Barnes conceded the role of the flag change in his defeat. "The flag did have something to do with it," the Democrat said. "I think it brought out a white rural vote."

In fact, the strongest anti-Barnes margins were in Atlanta's prosperous suburban counties. Mr. Perdue got 77 percent of the vote in Forsyth County, 71 percent in Cherokee, 69 percent in Paulding, 62 percent in Gwinnett, and even got 54 percent in Mr. Barnes' native Cobb County.

Many Georgians thought Mr. Barnes "just pushed stuff down our throat," Mr. Hobbs said. "Perdue promised a referendum on the flag. Let the people choose what they want."

Confederate-heritage boosters say they would win a flag referendum in Georgia. The defeat of Mr. Barnes was among several recent indications of voter support for Southern symbols:

•South Carolina Gov. David Beasley was defeated in 1998, two years after he pushed a measure to remove the Confederate banner from atop the Statehouse in Columbia.

•In April 2001, Mississippi held a referendum in which 66 percent voted to retain that state's Confederate-themed flag.

•On Tuesday, 58 percent of voters in Harrison County, Miss., elected to keep a Confederate flag display at the beach in Biloxi.

The flag was not the only issue in Georgia. A Barnes-backed school-reform plan angered teachers. Some black voters also were angry about the governor's failure to support black Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, who was beaten in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Perdue, a former state senator, released in May a video portraying Mr. Barnes as a power-hungry giant rat. TV stations jumped on the "King Rat" video as a news story, giving the Republican free media coverage, Mr. Hobbs said. "It had a huge impact. I think it definitely put [Mr. Barnes] on the defensive. That image of arrogance kept building."

While the Barnes campaign saturated TV with ads, the Perdue team found that potential donors were afraid to give to the Republican, lest they anger the powerful incumbent. In the end, however, not even a 6-1 fund-raising advantage could save Mr. Barnes, who lost by 100,000 votes.

Georgia's last elected Republican governor was voted into office in 1868, when the defeated South was under military rule. The GOP did not win another gubernatorial election in Georgia until Tuesday, when Mr. Perdue was inspired to echo Martin Luther King.

"You've stunned Georgia," the governor-elect told cheering supporters. "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, free at last."

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