Originally created 05/03/04

Black Republican candidates draw attention

ATLANTA - When Willie Talton became one of the first black law enforcement officials of central Georgia's Houston County in 1965, staking a place for himself in history wasn't on his mind.

"It was about getting in and doing a good job and showing I belonged," said Mr. Talton, a 60-year-old resident of Warner Robins.

Nearly 39 years later, Mr. Talton is taking a similar approach to a career move that could land him a second historical distinction: being one of the first black Republican state lawmakers in Georgia since Reconstruction.

"I really haven't had a chance to think about it," he said this week of his candidacy's significance to the political world.

Plenty of others took note of his campaign.

Black voters and black candidates have been viewed as part of the bedrock of the Democratic Party of Georgia since the Civil Rights era. All 49 black lawmakers in the Georgia Legislature are Democrats.

But that doesn't mean the Democratic tent is big enough for everyone.

More than a dozen black GOP candidates qualified this week for July's Republican primary elections.

They range in age from 30 to 65. Their professions vary from insurance to business to public relations.

Mr. Talton's candidacy stands out from the others because he has no Republican or Democratic challengers, virtually guaranteeing him a seat in the General Assembly in January.

Libertarian and independent candidates can still qualify for the race but would face a tremendous uphill battle against a well-funded major-party challenger.

"It's a fascinating development to be sure," said Mike Digby, a political scientist at Georgia College & State University.

"There have been black candidates under the Republican banner before. It could just be that now this is bearing fruit." he said.

COBB COUNTY HOUSE candidate Nick Chester says he isn't surprised by the strong showing of black Republicans on the GOP primary ballot this year.

"As the Democratic Party has grown over the years, it has grown more out of touch with the African-American community," said the 30-year-old insurance adjuster from Mableton. "The Republican side encompasses more of the conservative ideals that are near to my heart and near to the hearts of most African Americans."

Mr. Chester said the time is right for conservative black voters to consider the Republican Party, especially after this year's legislative session in which many Democrats worked to fight against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and a proposal to let faith-based groups use taxpayer money for charity work.

"When the Democratic Party started moving away from there, the values that created America - that created a void that the Republican Party is filling," Mr. Chester said.

Katherine Smith, the public relations coordinator for the Waycross-Ware County Public Library and a former Army lieutenant, says she also left the Democratic Party because she felt the GOP better reflected her morals.

"The decisions we make today affect the future of our children and our grandchildren," said Ms. Smith, 46, who is running in the GOP primary for House District 177 in southeast Georgia. "It's about time for us to stand up for righteousness' sake."

DEMOCRATIC LEADERS ARE quick to contend that their party's ideas and legislation are working because they have attracted a broad range of voters and elected officials.

"The Democratic Party truly reflects diversity," said Bobby Kahn, the chairman of the state Democratic Party.

He pointed out the racial and gender makeup of the lawmakers now serving in the state Legislature.

The 106 Republicans are 93 white men, 12 white women and one Hispanic man.

In contrast, the 129 Democrats are 57 white men, 21 white women, 31 black men, 18 black women and two Hispanic men.

"It's just not credible to say the Republican Party is an open party," Mr. Kahn said.

"They need to put their money where their mouths are."

Despite the advantages of diversity, some say the Georgia Democratic Party is in a state of flux because of the fragile solidarity of its members: urban liberals, blacks and rural conservative whites.


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