News - Lessons unlearned

State GOP shoots itself in the foot

Even though the Georgia General Assembly has finally decamped, we should take a moment to recognize a glaring example of gratuitous stupidity during this year’s legislative session — particularly as it seems to presage a screw-up yet to come.

The incident in question involves those members of the House GOP caucus who raised a stink because DeKalb Rep. Karla Drenner listed her lesbian partner as her “spouse” in a legislative guide.

Apparently, Dubya’s message about compassionate conservatism hasn’t permeated certain thick heads on the Republican side of the Gold Dome, even as they gaze at their navels trying to find out why their caucus is shrinking — and even as they prepare to make Ralph Reed their state party chairman.

For those unschooled in the ways of the Gold Dome, the guide in question is known informally as the White Book. Among the most prized possessions of lobbyists and Capitol reporters, the book lists names, addresses and personal information for each legislator, including the names of their spouses. (Back when your humble correspondent covered the Legislature a decade ago, reporters were much amused to discover that the wife of one prominent senator was named Bambi.)

Lobbyists use the White Book to invite legislators and their significant others to parties and to send them gifts. I suspect that quite a number of lobbyists would be more than willing to rub elbows with Drenner’s significant other, if they thought their wining and dining would make her more amenable to their cause. Lucky for us, then, that we have the House GOP caucus to stand between us and the dangerous practice of schmoozing with lesbians.

Drenner, to her credit, decided that she wouldn’t die on this hill. She said she won’t list her partner as her spouse in the future, thus proving herself to be a much bigger person than her critics.

Of course, I suspect that GOP members who created this controversy won’t be swayed by my argument here that their actions were silly and pointless. So I’ll take another approach, pointing out the political damage caused by those sorts of bizarre episodes.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that all gay voters are by nature liberal Democrats, many have conservative or libertian tendencies by dint of their economic circumstances and general life outlook. But seeing House Republicans poke them in the eye on a matter this picayune keeps them pulling the Democratic lever, even when it is against their overall best interests.

Georgia Democrats long ago figured out how to meld an ideologically unwieldy patchwork of interest groups, from rural farmers to black socialists to small-town Chamber of Commerce types to intown gay activists, to maintain their historic majority in the Legislature. They do it by agreeing to disagree and by keeping their focus on the primary purpose of a political party — winning elections.

Georgia Republicans, on the other hand, have an uncanny inability to distinguish between a political party and a pulpit, which turns off voters (straight and gay) in droves. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that Reed, the former Christian Coalition poobah who helped steer Mitch Skandalakis’ political career into oblivion, is widely expected to win the GOP chairmanship at the party’s state convention in May.

Georgia Democrats must be ecstatic at the prospect. With Republicans holding no major statewide political offices, Reed is poised to become the face of the Georgia Republican Party. The only choice that would have made Democrats happier would have been Newt Gingrich.

In a closely divided state, Republicans can win only when they reach out inclusively. The best example is in Fulton County, where first Skandalakis and then Mike Kenn won the County Commission chairmanship by gaining the support of normally Democratic intown Atlanta voters.

By contrast, under Reed’s tutelage, Skandalakis left his county post and ran for lieutenant governor in 1998 as a right-wing, Confederate-flag-waving ideologue — to which the voters of Georgia replied with a hearty “no thank you.”

The GOP also recently lost Rep. Kathy Ashe, a bright, hardworking legislator who represents an intown Atlanta district that’s been in Republican hands for decades. Often a voice of reason when legislative Republicans decided to go off on a morality tirade, she could finally take no more and jumped ship to the Democrats.

If Georgia Republicans want to pursue religious purity and deliberately alienate groups of potential voters who don’t pass their litmus tests, they are free to do so. Electing Ralph Reed as state party chairman would certainly be a step down that road.

But if they want to ever actually govern Georgia sometime in their lifetimes, they really ought to think again.??

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