Originally created 08/29/96

Missing in action: 1992 convention stars



CHICAGO - When former U.S. Rep. Ben Jones limped into a gathering of Georgia Democratic National Convention delegates, he was greeted like a one-time rising political star fallen on hard times.

After six knee operations that required two years of medical procedures and recuperation, the man who once played "Cooter" on the Dukes of Hazzard leaned on a cane as he answered questions about his health and talked up the Democrats' chances this fall.

"Politics has ruined me," he jokingly told delegates.

Mr. Jones was in his element as he joined a unique reunion of sorts going on at the convention: a homecoming of ex-luminaries in the Democratic Party, many of whom were swept from office by the surging state Republican tides of 1992 and 1994.

Former officeholders aren't hard to find here. Delegates bump into them in hotel lobbies, ride buses to the convention hall with them, and mingle with them at receptions.

Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, one of the stars of the 1988 and 1992 conventions, has been a regular on TV and at speaking appearances around town.

Ex-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, gave an impassioned speech to delegates Tuesday, although it was scheduled early enough not to upstage any of the party's prime-time orators.

Both Ms. Richards and Mr. Cuomo were knocked off in the 1994 surge that brought Republicans control of Congress and a majority of the nation's governorships.

Several one-time congressmen and congressional candidates who were bested by Republicans in the 1990s are back as convention delegates.

One is ex-Rep. Don Johnson, a lawyer who is working international business deals now that a Gingrich devotee - Charlie Norwood - has his seat in Congress.

Mr. Johnson in particular is seen as a party martyr because he helped President Clinton pass a tax increase in 1993, then had it rammed down his throat a year later when he lost his seat to Dr. Norwood.

"He was a hero," said Chuck Pardue, a delegate from Martinez, Ga. "He got vilified by the public and press and in my mind, he's a hero.

"He cast that vote knowing it would endanger his re-election. But he did it to help his country. In the long run, Don Johnson sacrificed his political career for our good."

Mr. Jones' exit didn't have such high moral overtones.

His congressional district was redrawn in 1992 in a historic remapping that helped elect Republicans throughout the South by segregating black Democratic voters.

Mr. Jones was forced to run for a seat stretching from suburban Atlanta through Athens and on to Augusta, an area which he had never represented.

The result: he was thumped by Mr. Johnson in the Democratic primary.

Two years later, in the election that made the "Republican revolution" famous, he played the sacrificial lamb, putting up a good fight but ultimately getting hammered by Mr. Gingrich.

"He spent more money the last day of the race than I did in my entire campaign," Mr. Jones lamented.

But "Cooter," who is counting on doing a Dukes of Hazzard reunion show soon, remains popular with party faithful, and was warmly embraced by several delegates when he showed up this week to round up donors for Gingrich's latest opponent, Michael Coles.

"This party has more heart. Ultimately, that is what people respond to," Mr. Jones told delegates. "We're not right-wing militia types.

"All we have to do is believe and others will believe and we can win congressional seats in Georgia," he added.

Georgia state Rep. Thurbert Baker chuckled and told Mr. Jones the words every ex-politician longs to hear.

"Ben, you haven't lost a step," he said.

Mr. Jones, working on his third knee replacement in two years, corrected him. "My NBA career is over," he responded.