Originally created 09/06/98

Politician glad he's not in race



ATLANTA -- While Georgia political candidates are tearing each other to shreds this fall, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard will be earning a living at one of Atlanta's most prestigious law firms, promoting creation of a wilderness preservation fund and spending time with his wife and their two children.

In the minds of many, that's not how it was supposed to be.

Labor Day weekend was supposed to mark the kickoff of Mr. Howard's final drive to the governor's mansion, the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

But the lure of the state's highest office wasn't enough for the 55-year-old Democrat, who was all but assured his party's nomination for governor this year.

A year after dropping out of the race, Mr. Howard can take one look at the impending political fistfight between gubernatorial contenders Guy Millner and Roy Barnes, smile broadly and pronounce, "We're very happy.

"I feel very clear that the decision (not to run for governor) was the right one."

But he also sees the extremely negative turn politics has taken - best exhibited during the nasty runoffs for lieutenant governor last month -- dampening voter interest and turnout.

"Somebody ought to get the message when you have a 12 percent turnout (in the runoffs) that people are disgusted," Mr. Howard said. "Things have changed a lot. It doesn't make me feel bad to be on the sidelines right now."

Mr. Howard's reaction to the slam advertisements of today may be so strong because he did his best to avoid such unpleasantries in his race for lieutenant governor in 1990, in his re-election campaign in 1994, and during his tenure leading the state Senate.

In fact, his eight-year stint may be best known not for the historic legislation that passed through the chamber -- including the HOPE scholarship program and environmental protection measures -- but for the breakup of iron-clad Democratic rule.

Mr. Howard changed Senate committees by putting Republicans in charge of some of them, even though the GOP remained the minority party.

"There was an inclusiveness," said Senate Minority Whip Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who is expected to be selected to lead the body's GOP caucus next year.

"You never really felt like the minority party," Mr. Johnson said. "You felt like you could be heard, that you were respected, and that your bills had a shot on the floor (of the Senate)."

Athens Democrat Paul Broun, who has served in the Senate for 36 years, said Mr. Howard's consensus building was essential as Republican strength grew.

"It was very important to get the work of the Senate done," Mr. Broun said. "We had just enough Republicans in there, if they'd wanted to, to screw things up."

Before becoming lieutenant governor, Mr. Howard spent 18 years as a state senator representing DeKalb County in probably the most liberal white-majority district in Georgia. He had Jimmy Carter's smile, Robert Kennedy's hair style and politics that matched his constituents.

Among his colleagues for most of that period was Mr. Barnes, who represented a far more conservative Cobb County district. In 1990, Mr. Barnes left the state Senate to run for governor, and Mr. Howard left to run for lieutenant governor. Mr. Barnes lost the Democratic primary to then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, while Mr. Howard beat out a crowded field for lieutenant governor.

What Mr. Howard learned quickly was that he could no longer represent only his liberal Decatur constituents.

"I didn't turn out to be extremely liberal," he said. "The truth of the matter is if you become lieutenant governor, you have a responsibility to represent the whole state."

While much of Mr. Miller's Democratic gubernatorial platform swept through the Senate, Mr. Howard showed signs of a conservative bent. For instance, last year he aided passage of a measure banning so-called partial birth abortions.

Despite the governor's success in the Senate, he didn't always consult with Mr. Howard about his plans.

"The truth about it is a lot of what the governor did I read about in the paper," Mr. Howard said.

While he played the role of a good Democrat, Mr. Howard sought the kind of bipartisanship that sometimes irritated members of his own party, leading to snide comments about his fortitude. He occasionally had to deny rumors that he was about to switch parties.

Nonetheless, he was such a favorite to win the Democratic nomination for governor that Mr. Barnes temporarily dropped out of the race. When Republican frontrunner Michael Bowers acknowledged a lengthy extramarital affair in June 1997, the path to the governor's mansion appeared wide open.

But then Mr. Millner entered the race, raising the specter of the Democratic nominee having to compete financially with a multimillionaire Republican willing to write unlimited personal checks to win election.

And the pace of what it takes to become governor in this age of two-year, full-time campaigns quickly took its toll on Mr. Howard, his wife Nancy and their family.

"The thing that was the clincher for us was the distance we began to feel from ourselves and our family. A governor's race is a race of the family," he said. "We just felt the campaign was going to do a lot of damage to our family relationship."

Mr. Howard's decision to quit the governor's race stunned party officials, who had barely stopped talking about Mr. Bowers' confession. On the heels of the Bowers debacle, many Capitol watchers had trouble believing Mr. Howard's reasons for dropping out.

But Mr. Johnson responded, "He could have won it. I think that's what legitimizes his reasons for getting out. He was the perceived frontrunner."

If Mr. Howard had stayed in the race, there likely would have been "Republicans for Howard" groups started to support his effort, Mr. Johnson said.

"I think he would have been more mainstream and had more statewide support (than Mr. Barnes)," Mr. Johnson added.

Mr. Howard will spend his final fall in office promoting passage of a proposed Georgia constitutional amendment creating a conservation fund to help the state preserve environmentally and historically significant land, one of his passions.

And Mr. Howard said he will help raise money for Democrats and aid Mr. Barnes any way he can in his race against Mr. Millner.

The lieutenant governor cited his own political transformation in describing why it is wrong for Mr. Millner to run TV ads calling Mr. Barnes "soft on crime" because of votes he made in the General Assembly during the 1970s.

"Roy Barnes, I can assure you, is not soft on crime. If he were governor, he would not be soft on crime. Neither would Guy Millner," Mr. Howard said.

But as the end of his term nears, Mr. Howard doesn't sound like someone who expects to be called on to do much heavy lifting during the fall campaign.

"The main thing I want to do for the next few months is try to assure a smooth transition to the next administration," he said.

He will miss, he admitted, the ability to make a difference. "I will really miss ... the power to make changes," he said.