ATLANTA - With renewed debate over the state flag looming, top advisers to Gov.-elect Sonny Perdue appear to be backing away from the possibility of returning the Confederate battle emblem to the banner.
During this year's campaign, Mr. Perdue, a Republican, was critical of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes' role in shrinking the controversial symbol. Though he stopped short of endorsing the former flag, adopted by the Legislature in 1956, he said citizens deserve to vote on it.
"Sonny Perdue believes the people have the right to choose the Georgia flag and as governor will support a referendum to let us decide what flag we want to represent Georgia," reads a section of Mr. Perdue's campaign literature, Principles to Guide a New Georgia.
But in separate interviews since the election, top Republicans have said they doubt the distinctive St. Andrew's Cross emblem will be an option on any ballot.
"I don't see us voting on the St. Andrew's flag again," said state Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, a Perdue adviser who in January will become the vice chairman of the Senate's Republican caucus. "But I do believe there could be discussion on a referendum on some other historic flag."
Mr. Williams said one possibility is returning to Georgia's pre-1956 flag, which incorporates part of the Confederate national flag but not the controversial battle emblem adopted by white supremacist groups.
Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, soon to be the Senate's most powerful lawmaker as president pro tem, offered similar thoughts.
"The immediate past flag would be divisive," said Mr. Johnson, who got statewide attention when he waved that flag in Savannah's 2001 St. Patrick's Day Parade, days after the Barnes-backed change. "It's my expectation that we won't be going back to the old flag, but the new flag will be changed."
BUT DIE-HARD SUPPORTERS of the old flag say that's not what they were promised.
"This is the issue that has brought Sonny Perdue to the governorship," said Allen Trapp, a past commander of the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It would be very unfortunate if they were to backtrack now and try to evade the issue in any way. A lot of people would feel very disappointed."
Mr. Trapp and other heritage group leaders, who view the battle flag as a tribute to their Confederate ancestors, say they're giving Mr. Perdue the benefit of the doubt.
"I think he's a man of his word," Mr. Trapp said. "I think we'll have a referendum along the lines of what we've been promised."
If not, Mr. Trapp says he thinks voters angered by Mr. Barnes' flag change will turn on Mr. Perdue in four years.
"If he proves he's not a man of his word, people just might stay home in November, or just leave that one (race) blank," he said.
Ironically, a return to the pre-1956 flag would be what black lawmakers and their allies pushed for years - to protests from Republicans and some rural Democrats. But now, they say they'd prefer to leave the new flag in place.
"To revisit this issue is tantamount to re-fighting the Civil War," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. "If the Republicans want to reopen this issue, they have to take full responsibility for the damage they will do to this state in terms of race relations and the economy."
THE NAACP and other groups have boycotted states such as South Carolina and Mississippi for flying Confederate flags. For years, Mr. Brooks advocated returning to the pre-1956 flag and says he would have preferred it to the current flag. But Republicans always worked against his efforts, he said.
"In 2001, when we found the votes for this, the vast majority of folks were thankful we resolved this civilly," Mr. Brooks said. "It's over. My recommendation is to let it be."
But Republicans say they believe most voters would be happy as long as they were able to voice an opinion. Options they have discussed include holding a nonbinding vote to advise the Legislature on the flag, having a simple "yes-or-no" vote on keeping the current flag or appointing a commission to pick an existing flag design or create a new one.
The earliest a vote could appear on a statewide ballot likely would be 2004.
"I'm already sensing there are going to be some opportunities to resolve this in a way to make a lot of people happier than the way Roy did it," said Sen. Rusty Paul, R-Atlanta, another top Perdue adviser. "We can't tear the state apart over this issue, but there are some options out there that may defuse the issue."
Morris News Service Staff Writer Dave Williams contributed to this article.
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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