Former Gov. Roy Barnes has gotten pretty good at deflecting “the question.”
He’s enjoying his thriving law practice in Marietta, and he loves spending time with his five grandchildren. So why would he want to enter the 2010 governor’s race?
But when Barnes is asked about the current state of affairs at the state capitol, his political passion quickly bubbles to the surface. We were speaking Friday morning as he was giving me a tour of the Mable House and his family homestead in Mableton.
“I’m appalled at what I see happening,” Barnes says. “I get up some mornings and ask myself, what has happened to my state?”
Barnes said he’s not just appalled at Republicans, but also at some Democrats. It’s obvious he believes Georgia would have been a much different state today had he been re-elected as governor seven years ago instead of losing to Gov. Sonny Perdue.
All those hundreds of thousands of acres of timber land that got sold off? Barnes said the state under his leadership would have bought every last acre.
Whatever the subject — be it transportation, the environment or economic development — Barnes clearly remains fully engaged in the issues. More importantly, he continues to have ideas and positions on what should happen; and he shows great concern in his belief that most of our current top state leaders are off key.
“They don’t realize that North Carolina is eating our lunch in economic development,” Barnes said. “North Carolina has had a bipartisan effort to improve education.”
North Carolina’s foreclosure rate is half that of Georgia. And North Carolina has a cohesive economic development strategy and a forward-looking transportation policy, he added.
“I can go to Charlotte and travel to Raleigh by train, but I can’t go from Alpharetta to Atlanta by rail,” said Barnes, who is disturbed by how Georgia’s national stature has slipped in recent years.
“We’ve stopped emulating progressive states like North Carolina, and we’ve started emulating lesser states like Mississippi,” Barnes said. “And in some ways, Mississippi is ahead of us.”
And don’t get him started on how Georgia Power has been able to push through its plan to get ratepayers to pay upfront for a nuclear power plant, a proposition that will disproportionately hurt homeowners and small businesses because larger industrial users are exempt.
“It’s outrageous,” Barnes said. “I’ve never been madder. I’m just shocked.”
But Barnes wants to make it clear he’s a capitalist through and through — he’s just calls himself a democratic capitalist who believes our society can share its prosperity.
Late last fall, a group of business leaders invited Barnes to the Commerce Club to talk to him about running for governor (but he won’t name names).
“I consider myself as having pro-business support,” Barnes said. “I’ve been approached by the business community. I told them: ‘I thought y’all were all Republicans.’ ‘We are Republicans. We just want somebody who can run the train,’” Barnes said of their response.
Barnes is fond of saying that the “first duty of a governor in a southern state is to keep his name and his state off the front page of the New York Times. You don’t want to feed into their sterotype.”
That’s just what happened when state legislators tried to allow people to carry guns at the airpor, a story that ran in the Times.
“It’s affecting our businesses. It’s the perception we are having nationwide,” Barnes said. It doesn’t help when some state politicians argue against stem cell research. “With all that rhetoric, [companies] aren’t going to invest in a state where they think the leaders are anti-science and controlled by an ideologically narrow group.”
Losing the $300 million Solvay Pharmaceuticals plant in 2007 was particularly painful for Barnes. (Solvay ended up picking Birmingham, Ala. over Athens. The project was put on hold last year).
“We blew it with Solvay; it should have been the anchor for us,” Barnes said. “And they wanted to come here, but the governor and his team did not pay enough attention to them.”
So you tell me, is he or isn’t he?