Red state rising: The last days of Georgia’s two-party system

The former New York Times Atlanta bureau chief looks back on a seismic shift in politics
Illustration by Michael Witte
Illustration by Michael Witte

Georgia politics in the 1990s was like a murky twilight zone with two galaxies spinning away from each other.

On one side were the remains of the old Solid Democratic South, still dominant at the beginning of the decade but best glimpsed in ghosts and caricature-like light from vanished stars. So though Andrew Young, Zell Miller, and Roy Barnes were the main combatants in the 1990 Democratic primary for governor, I also interviewed Lester Maddox, making a quixotic run for the job he had last held in 1971. He proudly showed me his watch with its chicken leg for an hour hand and pick handle for a minute hand, memorializing his 1964 stand against integration at his Pickrick restaurant. “Those Spiro Agnew and George Wallace watches were pin-lever movements, cheap pieces of junk,” he said. “This is a 17 jewel.” When we said goodbye, he got into his Chrysler Fifth Avenue, with “Guy Lombardo: 50 Years, 50” Hits in the cassette deck, and headed home.

On the other side: the Solid Republican South, gathering mass and best represented by Newt Gingrich—who, lest we forget, was the only Republican in Georgia’s 10-member congressional delegation at the decade’s start. I’d drive out to Vittles Restaurant in Cobb County, where Gingrich improvised orations like a white-bread version of Ornette Coleman, spinning out endless variations of good Republican words (freedom, opportunity, empower) and bad Democratic ones (sick, pathetic, traitors) in giddy soliloquies. It was like watching Fox News before it even existed.

Then with remarkable speed, those galaxies changed places. In 1990 there was only Gingrich. Ambitious white politicians like Miller and Barnes were still Democrats. After the 1992 redistricting, there were four Republicans and seven Democrats in Georgia’s Congressional delegations. Two years later, there were seven Republicans and four Democrats (three black; one white).

“Moderate-conservative Democrats in the South are a dying breed, but I never thought the Republicans would become the majority party this fast,” Roy Rowland, a six-term Democrat whose retirement from Congress opened the door for Saxby Chambliss, told me after the 1994 elections. “My history pulls me to the Democrats, but I know if I were running as a young man now, I’d be running as a Republican too.”

It was remarkable to witness that short window of transition. Yes, whites were trending Republican, but Jesse Jackson was registering black voters across the South. You could have made an argument the state could go either way: that a coalition of black and white Democrats could be a winning formula, that there didn’t have to be a club the white folks joined that automatically controlled Georgia politics. There’s renewed talk of that coalition, but the 2014 election results don’t exactly bolster the case. Maybe a new twilight zone of a two-party Georgia lies over the horizon, but I’m not sure I’d bet my Guy Lombardo cassettes on it.

New York Times Atlanta bureau chief from 1989 to 1994, and now deputy national editor, Applebome is the author of Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture.

Back to the 90s

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.