Barnes' political views have shifted over time

Critics accuse him of 'tailoring' platform
Roy Barnes: Former governor is seeking to reclaim the seat and says his opinions have naturally evolved over his 26 years in politics.

 

 

ATLANTA --- When he first ran for governor in 1990, Roy Barnes was a vocal opponent of the lottery. He was defeated in a Democratic primary by Zell Miller, who made the creation of a lottery to fund education the centerpiece of his campaign.

Since then, Barnes has become a convert, saying the funding is vital to education in Georgia.

"Originally, I had problems with the lottery," the former governor said. "I thought that it was the state taking advantage of its own people. But it's here."

Barnes, who is seeking his old job back, has made experience central to his campaign. A look at his 26 years in elected office shows that on some key issues, his views have changed along with the times.

Barnes opposed abortion but now says he favors abortion rights after his daughters persuaded him to rethink his views. He is pledging to remove some of the special interest tax breaks he once favored.

The former governor said it's a perfectly normal "political evolution" for someone who has served as long as he has. Critics, however, accuse the former governor of tailoring his views to suit the prevailing political mood.

Nick Ayers, who led Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign that ousted Barnes from the governor's mansion in 2002, said Barnes uses a trial lawyer's technique of changing his strategy to suit the jury.

"But the jury in Georgia politics hasn't changed," said Ayers, now the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "The same people heard Roy be for the lottery and against it, be pro-life and pro-choice, be for (President) Obama, John Edwards and Harry Reid in some crowds and against them in others."

"That's a huge turn off," Ayers added.

Even Barnes' critics agree on one thing: He aims big.

In his four years as governor, Barnes undertook an activist agenda -- from changing Georgia's flag to muscling through a tough predatory lending bill that had Wall Street up in arms. There were sweeping school reforms designed to improve student performance and tax relief for homeowners.

Barnes' supporters applaud his willingness to tackle the state's most intractable problems. Detractors say Barnes' record shows not vision but arrogance -- ramming through big initiatives with a know-it-all attitude that left him with the nickname "King Roy."

"I'm an impatient person by nature," Barnes acknowledged. "My heart was in the right place, but there were times I didn't slow down or explain myself well enough."

When he was elected governor in 1998, Barnes pushed immediately for tax relief for homeowners and delivered a homestead exemption tax credit that delivered billions in tax relief after it was enacted in 1999. Republicans repealed the measure in 2009.

His education reform measure was a precursor to the federal No Child Left Behind law, putting in place more testing and accountability. Teachers, who felt like they were under attack for the poor performance of the state's schools, were irate when Barnes pushed to eliminate teacher tenure. Barnes now says it was a negotiating tactic that backfired.

Barnes pressed to build a $2 billion highway -- dubbed the Northern Arc -- to relieve traffic congestion along the perimeter outside of Atlanta but ran into fierce opposition from local residents who said the roadway would lower their property values. He also faced allegations of cronyism after owners of large tracts of land along the highway's proposed route were found to have contributed to Barnes' campaign. The proposal was eventually scrapped.

Shrinking the Confederate battle symbol on the state's flag was a fight that alienated some rural white voters, who felt their heritage was being stripped away. Many say it weighed heavily in Barnes' 2002 loss to Perdue. Barnes won some consolation in the form of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award soon after losing his re-election bid.

To Barnes, the hardest bill he passed as governor was one that cracked down on predatory lending.

The 2002 measure was widely considered to be the toughest in the nation, and an army of financial industry lobbyists descended on the Capitol to fight it.

Barnes signed the bill, but it had a short lifespan. The new law was gutted soon after his re-election defeat when lending institutions threatened to pull out of the state.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, who worked with Barnes on the predatory lending bill, said Barnes "is always aiming for the fences."

"He doesn't do anything halfway," the Atlanta Democrat said. "That just isn't in his nature."

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