White Democrat fights for survival in Georgia
Here in the home of timber yards, BB-gun champs and DEET-defying gnats, John Barrow is fighting for survival.
He's the last standing white Democrat from the Deep South in the U.S. House of Representatives, a remaining sliver of a party machine that once brokered power for the region's establishment.
John Barrow, the last white Democratic congressman from the Deep South, is fighting to win in a conservative district.
Barrow's political death, if it comes on Election Day, would serve as a stark signal of the electoral realignment dividing Southern Democrats and Republicans along racial lines.
The ramifications are huge -- not just in the South, but nationally -- in determining the future of both parties, say political observers and historians who are closely watching Barrow's uphill battle.
If Barrow loses, every Democratic congressman from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia will be black. Every Republican will be white, save Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was elected in 2010 with Tea Party backing.
Barrow finds himself working hard for votes in Georgia towns swept by a tide of Republican Red -- towns like Baxley, where, among many folks, saying "Democrat" is like taking the devil's name.
Barrow has attended the "Redneck Games" in Dublin and recently hosted a barbecue dinner at the American Legion Altamaha Post 26, where he bought five raffle tickets for a Mossberg Model 500A 12-gauge shotgun.
He might belong to the party of his daddy and his granddaddy, but his public persona stands far removed from Washington's Democratic leadership.
"A Democratic label is a killer in that district," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black, an authority on Southern politics. "The Democratic Party across the Deep South is in real trouble with white voters."
To make matters tougher, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature redrew the boundaries for Barrow's 12th District following the 2010 census, making his constituency even redder.
Barrow knows he can't win without a chunk of conservative Republicans crossing over.
But those who have followed his career say if anyone can defy political odds, it's Barrow.
"This is a district that went for (John) McCain and it will go for Mitt Romney this fall," Black says.
Theoretically, it should be virtually impossible for Barrow to win a fifth term. But he's done it before.
He's known as a survivor.
And he acts like one on the campaign trail.
'Made in Georgia'
On a muggy October morning, Barrow is on the second leg of his "Made in Georgia" tour.
He's determined to get to know manufacturing companies in Appling and Coffee counties. They are new additions to a district that sprawls north along the Savannah River to Augusta and westward into towns like Vidalia, as in sweet onion fame, and Dublin, home to a VA hospital and plenty of shamrocks.
The territory feels familiar -- same land, people and values that dominate counties that were already in Barrow's district. But many here don't know his name, except maybe through the barrage of television commercials.
"I don't know if you know about my politics," Barrow tells Jimmy Cook, owner of a Baxley nursery that grows everything from peppers to poinsettias.
"Actually, I'm an independent," Barrow says. "If Obama is doing what's right for Georgia, then I'm on his side. If he's not, then I'm not."
Down the road, folks like Stephen Worthington, director of Southeast wood procurement at lumber giant Rayonier, are fans of Rep. Jack Kingston, the Republican who represented these counties until redistricting.
Worthington talks timber with Barrow, giving him a hard-hat-and-safety-glasses tour past menacing machinery that makes 1,200-pound pine logs look as light as toothpicks.
"We need your help getting the housing economy back up," Worthington says.
Later, after Barrow leaves, Worthington ponders the chances of a Barrow victory.
"Is anyone a Democrat around here?" he says, looking around a room full of Republicans.
Barrow knows well that he's facing the challenge of a lifetime around these parts.
He's counting on making personal connections that will help him bridge the political gap.
Like with Philip Smith, the manager of aluminum maker Elixir Industries in nearby Douglas.
In a chat in his office, Smith tells Barrow two things right off the bat: that he pretty much votes Republican, and that Barrow's GOP challenger, Lee Anderson, is also getting a tour of Elixir today.
Not one to show a great deal of emotion, Barrow nods his head and lets Smith continue.
"Here's what people around here don't like about Washington," Smith says. "People are tired of bickering between Republicans and Democrats."
Barrow leans forward in his armchair.
"I'm a party unfavorite," he tells Smith. "I am one of the most independent people up there.
"You should never surrender your own good judgment to someone else."
A politician's true measure of independence, Barrow believes, is how often he disagrees with his own side and votes with the other. On that scale, Barrow's a clear voice down the middle, he tells Smith.
That's exactly how a television ad portrays Barrow to prospective voters.
"Hi, I'm John Barrow. Some people like me. Some people don't," starts the ad.
He says the Democrats don't like his "A" rating with the NRA, which endorsed him in the race. Republicans, he says, don't like that he voted against the plan to privatize Medicare. He says both parties were wrong on the Wall Street bailout.
"I approved this message because folks in Washington don't like me being independent, but you're the one who counts."
It's that kind of courting of conservatives that wins Barrow points. He makes headway with Smith.
The plant manager tells Barrow he is tired of young people who ought to be working taking advantage of entitlements. He's had enough of the country's massive deficit.
"You can't spend more than you earn," Smith says.
"That's right," Barrow says, telling him how he has been working with the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in Congress to reduce the deficit.
It's apparent that it will take a lot for Smith to cast a ballot for a Democrat. But Barrow, it seems, has gotten his ear.
John Barrow greets aluminum plant employees in Douglas, Georgia, a town that was added to his district when the GOP-dominated legislature redrew the lines.
Kith and kin
Smith takes him on an exhaustive tour of Elixir's vast plant, which spits out shiny new aluminum products in seemingly every shape and size known to man. The workers here make shower doors, side rails for golf carts, even field-hockey posts.
Barrow says hello to many of the employees on their 11:30 a.m. lunch break, greeting them with a fist-bump and flashing a toothy smile.
In one of the small break rooms, he sits down to eat a Subway Italian foot-long he's brought along for his tour. Most of the employees have brought food from home: sandwiches, chicken and rice.
Barrow talks a language lawmaker and worker have in common: football.
The Coffee County high school team just beat Tifton 24-7. They play Lowndes County later in the month. Barrow asks if the Valdosta school is still a formidable foe.
"Nah," the employees respond in unison.
"They ain't no good no more," adds one.
With others, he talks land.
His grandma was born in Baxley. Lived here in the 1880s when white folks in Dixie were fiercely proud to be Democrats.
He grew up in Athens, the son of Judge James Barrow and Phyllis Jenkins Barrow, who both served in the military during World War II.
When he was "itty-bitty," Barrow says, he drove through Appling County on his way to Jekyll Island for family vacations on the Georgia coast. That was at the height of the struggle to end segregation.
He studied political science and history at the University of Georgia -- his blood runs Bulldog Red and Black -- before studying law at Harvard.
By then, the South had already turned the corner in going from blue to red.
After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, he reportedly told an aide: "We have lost the South for a generation."
Johnson was right. Conservative white Southerners turned Republican in droves as the national Democratic Party championed equal rights and was seen as increasingly liberal.
That perception remains an obstacle for Barrow to this day.
"The Democratic Party is now defined by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. These are very liberal Democrats," says Emory's Black.
"And that's a nonstarter for a majority of whites in the South."
As Barrow makes his way past machines that melt and mold aluminum, Mark Sibley comes running out of a glass office. He wants to shake Barrow's hand.
"I vote for anybody who's good. I don't care about party," Sibley says.
He tells Barrow he likes his commercials and his promises to end wasteful spending.
Mark Sibley ran out to shake Barrow's hand during a tour of Elixir Industries.
Sibley has worked at Elixir for 2 1/2 years. That was after he lost a job at a chicken plant that shuttered its Coffee County operations in 2009.
Sibley says it means a lot to him that Barrow came to visit Elixir and took the time to meet with voters.
He and others here say they aren't much impressed with Barrow's opponent.
Lee Anderson, a state legislator and former head of the Georgia Farm Bureau, stamps his campaign placards with an image of a tractor. He has a Southern accent so pronounced, says Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway, that it ought to be bottled up for posterity.
Anderson has played up his rural Georgia roots. But some people around here don't think much of his farming background. "He ain't never cut anything but hay," Anderson's critics like to say.
A weak opponent could save the day for Barrow, and so far Anderson has not shown to be otherwise, Emory's Black says. The Rothenberg Report, a non-partisan political handicapper, is now characterizing the 12th District race as "toss-up/tilt Democrat."
"This district is one that should have never been a headache for the GOP, but after getting a weak nominee in state Rep. Lee Anderson, really is setting in for many Republican operatives," Rothenberg said. "Anderson's weakness isn't the only factor in this race. Rep. John Barrow has run a good race with terrific TV ads meant to demonstrate his political independence and get voters to focus on him and not on his party."
The report cited Barrow for distancing himself from the "the stereotypical Democratic label."
Anderson has refused to debate Barrow, demanding that he pronounce his presidential choice in front of a camera so as to not deceive voters.
"I want him to tell the truth," Anderson says. "Sometimes he's an independent. Sometimes he's a Democrat. Sometimes, who knows?"
Barrow says he has already said he will vote for Obama and that Anderson just doesn't want to talk about the issues.
Bob Young, a well-known Georgia Republican who served as mayor of Augusta in the early 2000s, says Anderson is making a mistake by not confronting Barrow in a public face-off.
"From my perspective, I want to see my Republican candidate take on the opposition head to head, toe to toe, here in the district," Young says.
"This campaign is not being waged in front of the people," Young says. "At the end of the day, I'm a Republican. But (Anderson) makes it hard."
It's not as hard for Young's wife, Gwen Fulcher Young, who made up her mind not just to vote for Barrow but actively solicit votes for him.
"My wife has gone rogue," Young jokes. But he adds that he can see the attraction to Barrow.
"He has built a reputation for constituent service," Young says. "People relate to a congressman who relates to them. Barrow's a known quantity."
The presidential vote could also affect the outcome of Barrow's race, says Galloway.
"In Georgia, Mitt Romney was the second choice for many Republican voters," Galloway says. "There are some indications of a lack of enthusiasm. And that means a disenchanted (GOP) turnout."
Barrow looks at it differently: the more voters, the better.
"Presidential turnout is always the best no matter who's on the ballot," he says.
It's like every church that has members who show up only one time of the year, he says. On Easter Sunday.
Black and white
Barrow's campaign sent out more than 500 invitations for an early evening dinner at a rented event space in Douglas called The Atrium. It's a building that was recently rehabbed by developer Francis Lott, who hung up his Democratic credentials for the GOP about 15 years ago.
About 30 people show up for pulled pork barbecue and green beans just as dark clouds begin to scatter in the sky. Many are African-Americans who make up Barrow's core support in rural Georgia.
John Barrow shares a meal with supporters in Douglas, Georgia. Some black voters perceived Barrow as distancing himself from the Democratic party to win votes.
They don't care much for the fact that Barrow voted against the president's Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Or that he voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the deadly Operation Fast and Furious scandal.
They don't think Barrow ought to be distancing himself from the president the way they thought he did by not attending the Democratic National Convention.
If you're going to be a Democrat, then be a Democrat, says Johnny Roper, who served on the Douglas city commission for 27 years.
"We really want someone more devoted," he says as caterers begin to serve the meal.
But, he asks, what's the choice? There's a big difference between Barrow and his Republican opponent, who Roper says is "no good for poor folks."
But minority votes like Roper's have been diluted in Barrow's newly drawn district.
The Georgia General Assembly had redrawn Barrow's district once before.
Barrow was first elected to Congress in 2004, the same year Republicans took control of both houses in the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Two years later, Barrow's hometown of Athens was cut from his district in an unprecedented mid-decade redistricting, and the congressman moved to Savannah. He had to move again to Augusta when his district lost Chatham County, which includes a chunk of core Democratic voters in Savannah, and gained large swaths of rural areas populated by conservative whites.
Georgia Republicans say the lines were redrawn to reflect the state's population changes.
But civil rights groups say Republicans are trying to further empower themselves by isolating black voters in majority-minority districts represented mostly by black Democrats.
"They are using race," says Anita Earls, a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
"The Republican strategy is to try to make the Democratic Party a party of black people," she says.
That will make it more difficult for Democrats to win races in the near future, Earls says, but changing U.S. demographics -- in which minority populations are growing at faster rates than whites -- means that eventually that strategy will be doomed.
"They don't have a long-term formula for success," Earls says. "Maybe, they get a decade."
Emory's Black says the Republicans are doing what the Democrats did to them when they dominated the state assembly: drawing them out of power.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said as much when he spoke to the Georgia delegation at the Republican convention in Tampa.
There was only one Georgia Republican in the House when Boehner first entered Congress in 1991.
"We're going to have 10 after November -- two more," he said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He was talking about Georgia's population gains that led to the creation of a new 14th District that's overwhelmingly GOP -- and, of course, about Barrow.
"I can't speak to the motives of the people who drew the lines," says Young, the former Augusta mayor, "but we all know that the Supreme Court has set a pretty high bar in maintaining communities of interest. These districts have passed the muster of the Obama Justice Department."
But Barrow says he feels like a target, a poster child, he says, for gerrymandering.
"No question about it," he says -- the Republicans are trying to force him out.
"But I made a promise to my voters."
It's a pledge he intends to honor -- to represent the people who have looked to him in Congress since he was first elected.
Lowell M. Greenbaum, chairman of the Democratic Party in Richmond County, says the idea that the Democratic Party can no longer attract Southern white voters is incorrect.
"Look, voters are up for grabs and parties have always responded one way or the other," he says.
"The problem is that voters have had their votes taken away from them without them realizing it," he says, referring to the creation of minority-majority districts.
Greenbaum doesn't begrudge Barrow's strategy of playing up his independence, playing it down the middle and not always advertising loudly that he still belongs to the party of his daddy and granddaddy.
"He does cast a vote at times with which the Democratic Party is not happy," Greenbaum says. "But when we invite him to explain his votes, he always comes. He is in direct communication with us all the time, which we feel is very important for a congressman."
Barrow has a way with people, Greenbaum says. And that's why a white Democratic congressman from the Deep South could still have an office in Washington after November.
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