With the momentum of her one-year incumbency, her prior stint as president of Macon City Council, and a victory in hand over state Rep. David Lucas in 2011, Miriam Paris had the upper hand in Georgia’s 26th Senate primary. First defenses are a little tougher for incumbents than later defenses, but the odds still strongly favor incumbents even then.
Jim Marshall narrowly beat Calder Clay for Middle Georgia’s open congressional seat in 2002, for instance, but incumbent Marshall trounced Clay two short years later.
Still, Paris has now lost to Lucas twice, first in July’s general election and then in August’s run-off, narrowly, but conclusively.
It’s not that Paris pulled some kind of an obviously bone-headed move, either, such as saying there’s a difference between legitimate and illegitimate rapes. On the contrary, she’s genuinely gracious and smart.
As a modern post-partisan black woman incumbent, with plenty of campaign money, deep political roots and this paper’s endorsement, she should have thrashed any challenger. So what happened?
Soon after Lucas won the run-off, a provocative commenter on the macon.com website attributed the result to “zombie slaves,” apparently meaning simple-minded voters following the dictates of the manipulative political “master,” David Lucas.
After many years in the Georgia House, and after twice beating a political star such as the late former Sen. Robert Brown in head-to-head races, Lucas is a master, all right, but not a master at dictating to the voters. Lucas is a master at listening to and connecting with them.
While Paris put up a nice website for her constituents to visit, Lucas was out talking to the district’s voters face to face. Lucas also charged Paris with being a Republican pawn. That’s an overstatement, but there was enough truth in the charge to stick. Paris’s ears seemed tuned to people such as state Sen. Cecil Staton, Rep. Allen Peake and Erick Erickson in north Macon, Lynn Westmoreland in west Georgia, and plenty of Atlanta gold-domers -- all outside the 26th District.
For example, as senator, she seemed to accept without much discussion the redistricting plan proposed by Republicans Peake and Staton for post-consolidation Macon, sort of a litmus test to the savvy black Democrats in Bibb about whether she can stand her ground on purely partisan matters. Republicans even ran an open campaign to crossover and vote for her in the last run-off, which tended to confirm Lucas’s charge.
Then came final confirmation. Outsiders fronted by a Republican Atlanta lawyer who formerly worked for Westmoreland issued fancy and “funny” fliers trying to paint Lucas as a lazy Negro, asleep at the political switch. That’s an odd way to spend PAC money in the 26th District, where people understandably resent racial taunting.
Most voters in the district also knew that the dog about sleepy Lucas wouldn’t hunt. In 2011, Lucas risked moving up to a Senate race after years in a safe House seat that he relinquished for the chance at the Senate seat. Although Lucas lost that race to Paris, in the midst of an unexpected illness, he recovered nicely and ran hard again in 2012, twice, visiting voters throughout the district in a classic muscle car with a bold District 26 paint job. Lucas is energetic, hard working, committed, and very much awake.
Local voters knew it. They also knew that Lucas wasn’t the reason Brown & Williamson consolidated its tobacco operations in North Carolina, as the flier suggested, nor was Lucas the reason the Music Hall of Fame tanked.
The people who put out that flier were more like political zombies, as was Paris herself, who reportedly said in reaction to the flier, “If (Lucas) was asleep, he was asleep.” (Technically, in the flier picture, Lucas was yawning.) Paris should instead have vehemently denounced the whole attack as racist blather, an offense to every voter in the 26th District.
Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who famously learned that “all politics is local” after losing his own first political race, would have scolded Paris for giving too much deference to extrinsic matters, and not enough attention to local voters who were offended at the racial overtones of the outsiders’ flier.
Lucas, of course, is a regular whipping boy in some quarters, supposedly the biggest black racist here short of Jack Ellis and Elaine Lucas. But David Lucas himself played no race card in this contest. It’s not playing the race card to happen to be a black challenging an incumbent black leader in a predominantly black district.
The composition of the 26th district, incidentally, wasn’t Lucas’ doing. It was by Republican design. Through intentional racial gerrymandering, Republicans recently re-packed the 26th District with even more black voters, just as they have purposefully through redistricting “encouraged” Georgia’s Democratic party to morph into a predominantly black party.
Another interesting angle was that Paris supported Macon-Bibb consolidation, which did prevail in July, while Lucas expressed skepticism about some aspects of the particular consolidation plan. It therefore appears probable that a critical number of Bibb voters who approved consolidation also voted for Lucas. If so, that would mean Bibb’s black Democratic voters are more nuanced than some people give them credit for -- hardly zombie slave voters.
If Sen. Lucas performs like Rep. Lucas, he won’t pick unnecessary battles. When called to action, though, Sen. Lucas should serve this community’s overall interests in Atlanta quite well. In private, Republicans in Atlanta say Lucas is respected for his integrity and principles, and can work effectively with them across the aisle. And if Lucas doesn’t satisfy the local voters, there’s always another election coming.
In the meantime, the critics might give David Lucas a break. The better politician won this race. After he dispatches Bobby Gale in November, Lucas will serve as one of Middle Georgia’s three senators. The whole community would be wise to give him the respect he has capably earned, because, along with Sen. Staton and either Burt Jones or Darrell Black (who will represent a small slice of Bibb County), Sen. Lucas will be representing this whole community.
David Oedel is professor of law at Mercer University Law School. Among other things, he studies redistricting, excessive partisanship and political life in the U.S.