Georgia Today: Retiring Columnist Jim Galloway On Georgia’s Altered Political Landscape
For decades, Jim Galloway has been on the frontlines of Georgia’s most consequential political stories. He retires on Friday, Jan. 15, after more than 40 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On Georgia Today, Galloway reflects on a career covering Georgia politics, and his worries about the future of the GOP.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Jan. 15th, 2021. For more than four decades, Jim Galloway has been on the front lines of some of the biggest political stories in the South.
Gov. Roy Barnes: The new flag does not, however, value one Georgian's heritage over another.
Stacey Abrams: Hard work is in our bones and we have proven this every single day, Georgia. With doors knocked, with calls made, with miles traveled.
Steve Fennessy: Jim is a frequent guest on GPB’s Political Rewind. But you likely also know him from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Political Insider column. After 41 years at the paper, Jim retires today. The Chief, as he's called in the halls of the state capitol, stuck around long enough to cover one of the biggest political stories in a generation: Georgia changing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate with a victory last week of Democrats Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff.
Steve Fennessy: Jim, are you ready?
Jim Galloway: I'm ready to go.
Steve Fennessy: When you look at the world now, I mean the political world in America, what do you — what goes through your head?
Jim Galloway: When I first started at the agency as an editor there, I went and I went into reporting I had to work the weekend shift. And thus had — thus was the — I was the Klan reporter. You know, I was the guy that you sent out just to monitor them. We didn't like to write about them, just to monitor them. And because, you know, obviously they'd caused some trouble before. And now I — you know, I see them — pretty much the same people out front, out in the open.
Steve Fennessy: When was that, that you were monitoring the Klan for the AJC?
Jim Galloway: That would have been early '80s.
Steve Fennessy: OK. Well, that's a good time to talk, to start our discussion, actually, because I know you started at the AJC in 1979.
Newscast: President Carter returns to Atlanta Tuesday for visits to the General Assembly and Georgia Tech. It's his third trip home in less than two months. Home of the people who provided him with the initial support for his run for the presidency.
Steve Fennessy: That year in the General Assembly, there were 236 members of the state House and the state Senate. And of all those 236, precisely 25 were Republican. Did they look like the Republicans that we see today?
Jim Galloway: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. In fact, at the time when both Coverdell and Isakson were the minority leaders in the — Coverdell in the Senate and Johnny in the House, they called themselves progressives.
Steve Fennessy: Wow, how strange how branding changes.
Jim Galloway: Yes, yes, how do you like that? They were in many, many ways they were more liberal than the rural white Democrats. They were a good bit more open on race. I mean, Isakson ran in — I think it was the —1990. He ran for governor in 1990.
Steve Fennessy: Mmhmm.
Jim Galloway: And I can remember getting into a — just a fierce battle with Zell Miller, he was the Democrat, when I inserted a line into a story — I was the political editor then — that basically said for the first time, Republicans are — I mean, they have a candidate who could appeal to African Americans in the same way that Democrats. And Isakson always did very well within the African American community. I think in that case, he kind of shot himself in the foot. I think he came out against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which handed the issue back to Miller.
Steve Fennessy: Speaking of Johnny Isakson, and kind of flash forwarding a bit. But when he was stepping down from the U.S. Senate for health reasons and there was that really memorable moment in the House chamber and in the Capitol.
John Lewis: You have been very good to the people of the state of Georgia. And I'm lucky enough and just blessed, really, to call you a friend and a brother. Thank you so much.
Steve Fennessy: John Lewis said, I'm going to come over to you, brother.
John Lewis: I will come over and meet you, brother.
Steve Fennessy: Moments like that didn't used to be so unique, but they are now.
Jim Galloway: They were rare then and they're almost impossible now.
If you look at Kelly Loeffler and Raphael Warnock in the U.S. Senate race, that contest set back Republicans for a good while as far as it comes to, to expanding their base beyond — beyond white voters.
Steve Fennessy: So just a little history lesson for us, what explains the Democratic domination in Georgia in 1979 when you joined the AJC?
Jim Galloway: That was largely — largely Jimmy Carter's doing
Then-Gov. Jimmy Carter: No poor rural, weak, or Black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or of simple justice.
Jim Galloway: He was able to unite urban Black Democrats and rural white Democrats who didn't — and the latter didn't like, you know, the national Democratic platform. But, you know, that was the power structure that was in Georgia and they stuck with it. And that was how Democrats hung on in Georgia until 2002. And that's far, far longer than any other state in the Deep South. All the other ones had gone Republican well before us.
Steve Fennessy: So there was something about this coalition that Carter built that sort of cemented that?
Jim Galloway: Basically your communities go where your sheriff’s races go.
And as long as everybody's stuck together, all these white Democrats in rural Georgia stuck together, it was pretty resistant to change.
NBC Newscast: Hello once again. And just to bring you up to date, NBC News has projected that Republican Ronald Reagan will be elected president of the United States over President Jimmy Carter. Let us show you the map now and show you why we are able to make that projection.
Steve Fennessy: What role did Reagan's presidency have on the evolution of the Republican Party here?
Jim Galloway: I think it was transformational. He drew in a whole lot of the religious right coming into the Republican fold, changed it immensely.
President Ronald Reagan: I know that you've been horrified, as have I, by the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice. Use the mighty voice of your pulpits and the powerful standing of your churches to denounce and isolate these hate groups in our midst. The commandment given us is clear and simple: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Jim Galloway: The other part that Reagan brought was the optimism that to me is one of the defining — just what makes Donald Trump so strange, in that no one would call him an optimist. There was no morning in America. Just the pessimism that has befallen the Republican Party, I think is just light-years away from what happened when Reagan came in. You did have these terrible fights on the Republican side, over, you know, over who would take control of the party. Figures like Sadie Fields, who ran the Christian Coalition here, they had a very good couple of decades that hit the high-water mark probably in 2004 when Georgia put in the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. You know, it has been downhill for social conservatives since then, I think, in terms of influence at the state capitol.
Steve Fennessy: Well, what was it about the National Democratic Party platform that rural white Georgians did not find favor?
Jim Galloway: Civil rights. That's kind of the theme that goes through most of Southern politics for the last, good Lord, forever. Yeah, we're still coming to grips with it today. What happened back in 2002 is, is that Roy Barnes finally pulled down that '56 state flag with the Confederate battle emblem.
Gov. Roy Barnes: For those who claim we can never satisfy the other side or say any change to our flag will dishonor our heritage. Well, I'm here to tell you there is no other side. In Georgia, we are one people forever woven together in a tapestry that is Georgia. We are all one — or at least we should be. And it is our job, our duty and our great challenge to fight the voices of division and to seek the South of reconciliation.
Steve Fennessy: Was it clear to you at the time that that was crossing the Rubicon, kind of, for the Democratic Party?
Jim Galloway: It became clear in the months that followed. Sonny Perdue grabbed that issue and a couple others and pried white rural Georgia away from the Democrats.
Gov. Sonny Perdue: My fellow Georgians, I am honored to stand here today as your new governor, humbled by history and lifted by your support. I won't forget I'm working for you.
Jim Galloway: Their alliance was cemented for the next 20 years, which is in rural Georgia and suburban Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: But that alliance failed to deliver last week as Democrats took both United States Senate runoff races. More on that ahead. Plus, when Jim Galloway wrote his political column twice a week, who was he picturing as his typical reader? This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm speaking with political columnist Jim Galloway, who retires today, Jan. 15th, after more than 40 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
We're talking a lot about politics, but in terms of your career, I understand that in the late '80s, you had your eye on a different kind of role at the paper.
Jim Galloway: I had my eye on that role pretty much from the beginning.
Steve Fennessy: What role was that?
Jim Galloway: A foreign bureau. We had a bureau in Moscow, in Jerusalem, in in London. We didn't have anything in Asia. And we opened one in Tokyo. I put in a bid for it. Bill Covic was the editor. He said, no, we've got the DNC coming to Atlanta in ‘88, so please hold off. We'll do something with you later. So that year after that, I — just months after that, actually — I got a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for the University of Michigan. Took the family, spent — spent a year studying Chinese philosophy, language, economics. Ended up kind of going to China on a scouting mission for a bureau back in the spring of ‘89. And, of course, that's when Tiananmen Square happened.
Newscast: This is the CBS Evening News. Dan Rather reporting. Good evening. It is morning now, Monday in Beijing: a city under siege by China's own Liberation Army. Gunfire is still being heard in the streets of Beijing, but in many places, a general, eerie, uneasy quiet prevails.
Jim Galloway: I was on Tiananmen Square the night the tanks came.
I went around with an AP reporter the next day when we found the morgue over in Muxidi. Most of the killing was — wasn't on the square. It was, it was — it was kind of in the workers’ quarter to the west, to the west of Tiananmen. And — and we just saw the bodies that were just piled up to the ceiling.
Newscast: A woman weeps over her dead brother, shot down beside her as they walked on a quiet street. Hospital administrators say they have been forbidden to release bodies to relatives for burial. Many of the wounded were bystanders surprised when the soldiers opened fire indiscriminately. They had always believed that the People's Army would not use force against the people.
Steve Fennessy: You were there initially or ostensibly to establish or look into establishing a bureau for Cox specifically in Beijing, and it just happened to be at the same time as the June 4th Tiananmen uprising in 1989.
Jim Galloway: In 1989, and — and which coincided with one of the first big newspaper recessions.
Steve Fennessy: So the decision was — was made after — after the uprising that we want to stay away from that as a bureau because of the uprising or…?
Jim Galloway: They couldn't afford a bureau there.
Steve Fennessy: How much of a disappointment was that to you?
Jim Galloway: I had spent the better part of two years preparing.
Steve Fennessy: Mm hmm.
Jim Galloway: But it sent me into another direction. Those bureaus. We don't have any bureaus now.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah.
Jim Galloway: You know, the — Moscow is gone. The Jerusalem is gone. London is gone. Those days are over. So I wouldn't have fared very well, in any case, there. It kind of —it kind of pointed me to hometown politics, which is the lifeblood of the paper. And it's — you know, as an occupational decision that was probably the right one to make.
Steve Fennessy: What is it about the column format that appealed to you?
Jim Galloway: There's something that we call, and I don't know if it exists in radio, but in newspapers we call it a voice. Do you have a voice or do you not have a voice? It's not about what you write about. It's how you tell the story. Is there a narrator within you that people will recognize and enjoy and respect? I was able to develop that.
Steve Fennessy: And what was the conceit of the Political Insider?
Jim Galloway: Well, the conceit — well, the thing was, when you cut back on space so much, you have to make a decision of what you cover. You know, we would cover the beginning and we would cover the end, but we wouldn't cover much in the middle. You lose a lot of the subtlety of what you cover. And you lose a lot of knowledge, quite frankly, as a reporter when you don't. The object was to get the minutiae back into some form. We started doing the Insider, and it was the first content that was created for the AJC that never appeared in print. By the end of the first year, when I was able to show them that we had 1.7 million page views, which at the time was pretty impressive. This is where I kind of first came in to recognize the power of what was happening. I would, you know, I would sit in my office in the state Capitol. I would type, post an item about the state Senate. I would walk across Mitchell Street, into the Capitol, into the Senate chamber, and I would get accosted by a senator saying, no, you got it wrong, here's what's really happening. It was absolutely amazing.
Steve Fennessy: I'm reminded of that line from Broadcast News where Albert Brooks says, "I say it here and it comes out there."
Jim Galloway: Right. It's just that was — it was just a stunning moment for me.
Steve Fennessy: When you were putting together these columns, and over the years that — the 20 years or so that you've been working on it, or just in general — do you have a reader in mind? I mean, what who's your target audience to you?
Jim Galloway: If I had a specific reader in mind, it would be the Republican who is getting uncomfortable with where his or her party is going.
Steve Fennessy: And why is that?
Jim Galloway: Because my deepest fear about Georgia politics is that it would be completely defined by race, that we — the Republican Party, would be the party of whites. The Democratic Party would be the party of Blacks.
Steve Fennessy: Mmhmm.
Jim Galloway: So that was always my greatest fear. And it's one of the most important things that I think Stacey Abrams has been able to accomplish.
Stacey Abrams: We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable. Our most urgent work is to realize Americans’ dreams of today and tomorrow, to carve a path to independence and prosperity that can last a lifetime.
Jim Galloway: She and other Democrats have been able to kind of recreate a different alliance. They've been able to recreate a union of suburban Democrats and urban Democrats. It's biracial. It's multiracial now, and that's a good sign. And ultimately, Republicans are going to be forced to go in that direction unless they want to become a permanent minority party in Georgia.
Newscast: In Georgia, Democrats swept the Senate races in the traditionally red state of Georgia. Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff’s victories mean that the Democrats will take control of the Senate.
Jim Galloway: Ossoff and Warnock to me, represent the antithesis of Donald Trump, his "American First" agenda and — and all the white nationalism that — that's kind of associated with it in “wink-wink” fashion.
In Georgia, there's there's no denying the importance of this, this is the first time that a Democrat — two Democrats, any Democrat — has won statewide since the collapse of the party in 2002. It's the first time the Democrats have held both Senate seats since ‘92. And, and — I think this is really important — we can talk about the fact that Warnock is the first black senator from Georgia, Ossoff is the first Jewish senator from Georgia. But also, this is the first time really since World War II — we only had maybe, I think 18 months when, when Max Cleland and Paul Coverdell were in office together — that both senators from metro Atlanta —were from metro Atlanta. And I think that's a true power shift in Georgia's political dynamics.
Steve Fennessy: I did want to ask about sort of the nature of of the work that you've done over the years and to what degree having — having the Rolodex you've built up over the years, who are — who are the people that that maybe transcended, just like ... source development, but people that you came to — came to like and maybe even count as friend? Were there people among them?
Jim Galloway: Johnny Isakson has been a good friend. I can talk to Roy Barnes whenever I want. I mean, what’s really just mind-boggling is watching these younger people grow into these spaces. I mean, Abrams you know, I mean, the first time I wrote anything about Abrams, I think it was about how odd it was that she was also a novelist, a romance novelist. And now look where she is. It's gotten a little bit harder to cover the people within the Capitol simply because messaging has gotten to be such a disciplined art among Republicans. They're very careful. And you don't have that relationship. You don't have as close a relationship when you're a columnist as when you're a beat reporter because you're not making daily contact. And quite often I don't want daily contact.
Steve Fennessy: Are you worried about the future of journalism and someone, you know, in 20 years being able to recap their career the way you are now?
Jim Galloway: I don't know that journalism will have that kind of stability. I hope as an entity, the AJC survives in some form. Whether it will always be in print, I don't know. I know the editors want to keep it in print as long as they possibly can. Just something about having that tactile piece of paper in your hand is rewarding. I think there are plenty of jobs out there. You will still have journalism. It's just — it won't be my kind of — my form of journalism, I think.
Steve Fennessy: What are you going to miss the most?
Jim Galloway: This pandemic has kind of forced on me. I miss the contact with actual human beings. You could sit in the house gallery in the state capitol and you can watch David Ralston and Stacey Abrams when she was in the legislature, go at each other. But if you looked real hard, you could see their smiles, you know, this wasn't personal. There was a little bit of detachment and they understood that. With everybody's masking up, you can't see that. You can't see somebody's face. I've gone through 40 years as a journalist half deaf. And, you know, until March, I didn't quite realize how much I depended on lipreading to make sure I understood what people were saying. So, I mean, it's just I will miss the personal contact, I think, and being able to read the body language. And there's a saying in politics that, “never speak, if you can wink, never wink, if you can just raise your finger — and never raise your finger if you don't have to.”
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to AJC political columnist Jim Galloway, who retires today. Jim, isn’t going too far, though: You can still hear him as a guest on GPB's Political Rewind.
As to what's next for him? Well, Jim's working on one of his retirement projects: carving a wooden lectern for his daughter, who's a schoolteacher.
Jim Galloway: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I've got a I've got a whole woodshop full of tools that I haven't used well enough or often enough.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating interview on Apple. Our producer is Shawn Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg and Khari J. Sampson