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Posted: April 5, 2009 11:59 p.m.

The Baker factor

Thurbert Baker is not exactly a clone of Barack Obama, but neither is he another Vernon Jones.

So when Baker, Georgia's veteran attorney general, announced for governor on a dull day last week, Georgia's highest-ranking African-American constitutional officer made a few headlines around the state.

Most of the news about Baker was linked to his impact on former Gov. Roy Barnes' yet-to-be revealed bid for another term as governor.

How would Baker's candidacy split the black Democratic vote?

Would Barnes have sufficient funds to beat Baker in a Democratic primary and go on to fight it out in a $10 million-plus general election with a Republican candidate?

Those are all good questions. However, the more important query is this:

Who will replace Baker as attorney general, and how tough will his successor be?

Baker was appointed AG to replace Mike Bowers when Bowers decided to run for governor in 1998. The Atlanta media went wild. Georgia, at last, had a high-ranking black official, one who was a champion of open records and open meetings. Gov. Zell Miller was praised for his decision to promote Baker from the Legislature to attorney general.

No one knew it at the time, but Baker was about to end the custom of crusading, tough-talking, anti-corruption attorney generals. Bowers had built a solid reputation on taking on the establishment and seeking indictments for crooks in high office. Some folks said Bowers was mostly bluffing. It didn't make any difference. His hard-charging style scared straight a platoon of would-be rogue public officials.

Baker was not cut from the same cloth. He was shy with the media and slow to move on questions of corruption. It took him nearly four years to make a report on the charges and countercharges involving the athletics department at UGA. By the time Baker finally revealed his findings, the UGA hubbub was old news and hardly made a splash. The allegedly misspent funds were long gone. Some observers said his bumbling of the UGA matter typified Baker's style in office. The late Richard Whitt wrote of Baker in his book, "Behind the Hedges" on the UGA-Dooley-Adams fiasco: "Ducking and weaving are admirable traits in the boxing ring, less so in the office of a state's chief law enforcement officer."

That was not an entirely accurate description. At times, the AG displayed uncommon courage. He took on Gov. Sonny Perdue in the courts and defeated him when Perdue contended that the governor, not the AG, was the chief legal officer of the state. Baker backed the criminal convictions of several black defendants who had become causes célèbres in the African-American community. Black leaders were livid.

Baker told Gov. Perdue to get lost when the governor asked him to represent Georgia in an attempt to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Perdue had to find a private lawyer to represent Georgians in the case.

When Sen. Paul Coverdell died, Gov. Barnes considered appointing Baker to the U.S. Senate to replace Coverdell. But the governor changed his mind and tapped Zell Miller for the job.

Near the end of his tenure, Baker looks a bit drab, a politician who might have made it into the big time but didn't. Baker could have been standing close to Obama now, but chose not to. Still, Baker is a straight arrow who has maintained a low profile. He was not built in the style of former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, whose terms were spattered with controversy and criminal allegations.

Those of us fond of conspiratorial plots are already speculating on Baker's motivation for running for governor. Some of us remember the first black gubernatorial candidate in modern times, Albany attorney C. B. King. He jumped into the 1970 Democratic primary featuring Jimmy Carter and ex-governor Carl Sanders. King won enough black votes to force a runoff; Carter went on to win the Democratic nomination. As it later turned out, Carter's crowd had paid for King's campaign to siphon off Sanders' votes.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.


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