Recent news has highlighted favorable trends for Democrats, from demographics to voter-turnout patterns to surveys about attitudes toward guns. All have given the state’s minority party reason to hope it could break Republicans’ stranglehold on statewide, congressional and legislative power.
Then along comes a trifecta of scandal.
A federal grand jury indicted a well-known Atlanta Democrat on 30 counts of fraud that includes allegations he stole from a children’s charity. The indictment alleges state Rep. Tyrone Brooks pocketed about $1 million over the years.
Brooks is the head of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, which he is accused of stealing from as well. To compound the bad publicity, he is being defended by the last Democrat to hold the governor’s office and two-time loser in attempts at a second lease, Roy Barnes, who began his representation with a press conference that brought the scandal to the attention of anyone statewide who had missed the original news of the indictment.
On the heels of the Brooks-embezzlement scandal came a state Supreme Court decision last week accepting the voluntary suspension of the law license of Mike Berlon, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. That led to the revelation that he is the subject of a lawsuit accusing him of malpractice.
One of his predecessors as chairman and fellow lawyer, David Worley, called for Berlon to resign the party post. But no one else had wanted it when Berlon won it after repeated attempts, and with the party effectively too broke to hire an executive director, the phrase leadership vacuum seems like an understatement.
These two scandals merely amplify Democrats’ defensive challenges caused by scandals in the Obama administration over the death of an ambassador in Benghazi, the subpoenaing of reporters’ phone records and IRS’ harassment of conservative groups.
Republicans have been trying for months to gain traction with the Benghazi affair when the phone-records news broke, angering even Democratic allies in the Washington press corps. But it is the activities of the Internal Revenue Service that has reenergized the tea party movement that had appeared dormant.
Average Georgia voters may not have any connection to ambassadors or reporters, but they all have to deal with the IRS, giving that scandal the potential to create real heartache for Democratic candidates.
About 100 tea party members held a midday rally at the statehouse Wednesday -- a sizeable crowd on a work day -- to protest the IRS, drawing network media attention.
The tea party rally provided a forum for hopefuls Karen Handel and Bob Barr at a time when their candidacies would have otherwise drawn little attention beyond the chattering of political junkies. Barr, a former federal prosecutor who served as one of the impeachment managers indicting President Bill Clinton, is using the IRS as fodder for his congressional-comeback campaign amid with demands to impeach President Barrack Obama.
And Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, used the rally to revive the call for ethics reform she used in 2010 to come within a whisker of winning the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Suddenly, she has a readymade platform in her quest for the U.S. Senate next year.
Even Gov. Nathan Deal took time out from begging Washington for money to deepen the Savannah River’s shipping channel to lob his own attack at Democrats during the rally.
As scandals go, these are all in the early stages. Most people aren’t aware of them, but the procedures for them to play out in courtrooms and hearing rooms have just begun.
While they percolate, it will be harder for Democrats to recruit candidates. Ironically, it could become easier for the party to raise money because traditionally stalwarts offer financial aid when they think it’s needed most. But effective recruiting and fundraising take leadership, and Berlon’s troubles will certainly provide a distraction if nothing else.
All of these scandals together are still unlikely to nullify the demographic trends favoring the Democrats, but they have the potential to alter voting patterns that had discouraged whites’ turnout declining and enthusiastic blacks’ turnout rising.
One saving grace for the Democrats is the growing economy. Don’t forget that it was in prolonged recession when turned on Republicans after the Watergate scandal but was in hyper-growth mode when Clinton escaped his own impeachment. Voters care most about their own circumstances, and as long as the economy keeps improving, Democrats will still argue that they deserve the credit.