Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond may run for U.S. Senate against Isakson

By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Friday, April 16, 2010

Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, a Democrat, is said to be strongly considering a run for the U.S. Senate, according to people who are close to him.

That means that Thurmond, who has been elected statewide three times, would be running against incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the November election. So far, no other serious politicians in either party have been mentioned as candidates for the Senate seat.

According to sources, Thurmond has been recruited by national and local Democratic leaders to run for Isakson’s seat.

Up until now, the speculation had been that Thurmond would run for lieutenant governor. But he has told people close to him that he finds the Senate far more appealing than serving as lieutenant governor, largely a ceremonial role.

“The focus of his career for the past decade has been on jobs,” said Drew Westen, an Emory University professor and political observer who is close to Thurmond. “I think he would have a much greater impact on job creation as a U.S. senator than as lieutenant governor.”

Westen said Thurmond is an appealing candidate who has had a “remarkable” record in his past races.

“He has a history of winning in areas where African-American candidates don’t tend to win,” Westen said. “And he has consistently beaten Republican opponents even when the top Democrat on the ticket has lost.”

But Westen said Thurmond does face “an uphill battle” in a race against Isakson.

“Isakson is hovering somewhere just above 50 percent in the polls,” Westen said. “In a year when voters hate incumbents, Isakson is holding his own.”

Indeed, Isakson holds a solid lead over Thurmond in a prospective Senate race between the two, according to a recent poll conducted by Research 2000 for Daily Kos, a liberal blog.

According to the survey of 600 likely Georgia voters conducted April 5-7, Isakson led Thurmond 53 percent to 26 percent.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, said Thurmond would face longer odds this year than he would have in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ballot attracted a large Democratic voter turnout.

However, Duffy also noted that even in those circumstances, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., survived a runoff to win a second term.

“[Chambliss] didn’t go into his re-election campaign as strong as Isakson,” she said. “It was a terrific year for Democrats across the board. While Democrats forced a runoff, they didn’t win.

“Running [this year] on a landscape that is better for Republicans against an incumbent that is in better shape, that’s a hard road.”

Still, 2010 is an unpredictable political year because of the level of voter unrest.

“What gives Michael Thurmond a fighting chance is the issue that he knows best and has spent the last 10 years of his life doing is how to put Georgians back to work,” Westen said. “He has developed a model program [of] tax incentives along with job retraining, and that model is now being put into place in many other states.

“If he can … contrast that with Isakson’s record on jobs, that will be his best chance.”

And jobs is an area where Isakson could be vulnerable, Westen said.

“For Isakson, voting against extending unemployment benefits, as the Republicans in the Senate did a couple of weeks ago, was a mistake of monumental proportions,” said Westen, author of “The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation.”

Thurmond “has a fighting chance” to win “if he has backing from Washington and money flowing into his campaign,” Westen said.

“I don’t think Isakson will be easy to beat by any means,” Westen added. “My guess is that Democrats have been afraid to jump into this race because Isakson comes across as a nice guy and he’s as popular as any politician in Georgia right now.”

Merle Black, also a professor at Emory and an expert on Southern politics, said Isakson’s political experience contrasts sharply with Thurmond.

Before winning election to the Senate, Isakson served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before that, he ran for the Senate and for governor.

“Thurmond’s had a lot of experience as a statewide officeholder,” Black said. “[But] he’s never been in a tough contest against an experienced statewide officeholder.”

Thurmond, 57, was born outside of Athens in rural Clarke County, the youngest of nine children.

In speeches, Thurmond has said he is proof that public education can work. His late father was a sharecropper who could not read or write, and he grew up in a house without running water.

But thanks to public education, in one generation Thurmond was able to go to law school, serve in the state House of Representatives, become an author and win office as Georgia labor commissioner.

He graduated with honors from Paine College in 1975 with a degree in philosophy and religion. He earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina and returned to Athens to practice law.

In 1986, Thurmond became the first African-American elected to the General Assembly from Clarke County since Reconstruction, and during his tenure, he was the only African-American elected from a majority-white House district.

In 1991, Thurmond completed the political executives program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 1994, then-Gov. Zell Miller tapped him to lead Georgia’s efforts to move Georgians from welfare to work.

He also has authored two books including: “Freedom: An African-American History of Georgia.”

Then, in 1998, Thurmond ran for labor commissioner, a position he still holds. Since the election of Obama, Thurmond has been offered positions in Washington, in the U.S. Labor Department, but he has chosen to remain in Georgia.

Black said that, win or lose, Thurmond’s presence near the top of this year’s Georgia ballot would help other Democratic candidates, notably gubernatorial candidate and former governor Roy Barnes, by energizing African-American voters.

A large black voter turnout in 1998 contributed greatly to Barnes’ victory the first time he ran for governor, according to political analyses at the time. Credit for that turnout was given to Thurmond and then-attorney general candidate Thurbert Baker, both African-Americans, being on the ballot.

“I’m sure the other statewide Democratic candidates would love to have him out there as a candidate,” Black said.

Westen said that if Thurmond loses the Senate race, he still would be one of the strongest Democratic officials in the state.

“Whatever the outcome of this race, it will only boost his visibility in the state of Georgia,” Westen said. “My guess is that this will be a much closer race than people expect.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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