Fri., August 30, 2013 4:00pm (EDT)

Democratic Chair Race Saturday
By Jeanne Bonner
Updated: 10 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
Three candidates will square off Saturday in a bid to be the next chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. The new chair will take the helm of a struggling state party. Former chair Mike Berlon, to the right of the podium in the photo from the opening of the party's new headquarters in Atlanta in 2011, left after receiving a reprimand from the State Bar.
Three candidates will square off Saturday in a bid to be the next chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. The new chair will take the helm of a struggling state party. Former chair Mike Berlon, to the right of the podium in the photo from the opening of the party's new headquarters in Atlanta in 2011, left after receiving a reprimand from the State Bar.
Three candidates will square off Saturday in a bid to be the next chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. The new chair will take the helm of a struggling state party.

Indeed, whoever wins the race will immediately face internal organizational and financial hurdles.

The last chair, Atlanta attorney Mike Berlon, quit after a State Bar reprimand. And the party is almost broke.

But broader problems also await the new chair.

The party needs to build support beyond Atlanta, says Karen Solheim of the Clarke County Democratic Committee in Athens.

And she says there needs to be a unified philosophy.

“We need to have a steady platform that we are behind. Everyone is on message,” she said by phone. “We don’t need to waffle around and try to re-invent ourselves every time we get a new chair. There needs to be some consistency.”

She says she hasn’t settled on a candidate yet.

In the running are former state legislators Doug Stoner and DuBose Porter, and R.J. Hadley, who’s the party’s vice chairman.

The incoming leader will also have to guide the organization into an era of shifting state demographics.

The Democratic Party is expected to gain support as more minorities register to vote.

But experts say the party still has a long way to go. The GOP controls all state-wide offices.

Tom Crawford, editor of the Georgia Report, an online political digest, says Georgia Democrats have never recovered from losing the Governor’s seat in 2002, which they held for a century.

“I think the party for the last ten years or so has been groping to find a way, without an effective leader there,” he said. “And I think the people who run the party have never really understood what it takes to be a successful opposition party.”

In addition to fundraising, observers say recruitment also has to top any list of priorities.

Crawford says an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 black and Latino voters in Georgia – who could reliably be expected to support Democrats – aren't showing up at the polls.

Party activists such as Solheim say Georgia could be a battleground state in the 2016 Presidential election. She says Pres. Obama could have won Georgia last year if he’d put “more boots on the ground.”

And experts predict the party could be competitive in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Many say Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed is considering a run, though he vehemently denies it.

Voting begins at 1 p.m., and takes place in Newnan.