Big-City Mayor Gives Democrats Hope?

Posted April 18, 2003 at 12:26pm

When I first received the recent Georgia Senate race poll conducted by The Feldman Group for EMILY’s List, I thought about that malapropism credited to New York Yankee great Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” [IMGCAP(1)]

The survey undoubtedly was initiated and released to woo Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (D) into the Senate contest, and the numbers apparently have piqued her interest in the race.

But early polls are often deceiving, and I can’t help but compare Franklin’s standing — and the scenario for a Franklin victory — with that of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) in last cycle’s Texas Senate contest.

The Feldman survey shows Franklin holding an early 45 percent to 38 percent lead over the man who currently looks likely to be the GOP nominee, Rep. Johnny Isakson (R), in the 2004 Georgia Senate race. The mayor’s name identification is high, with 52 percent of likely voters having a favorable opinion of her and only 9 percent holding an unfavorable opinion.

Isakson, who represents chunks of Cobb and Fulton counties, as well as a sliver of Clayton, is less well known. That’s not surprising, since he represents just one of the state’s 13 Congressional districts. While 31 percent of those polled have a favorable view of him, 13 percent have an unfavorable opinion.

The poll memo from the highly regarded Diane Feldman notes that while President Bush has a high 64 percent favorable rating and the Republicans maintain a 6 point generic advantage in the Senate race, Franklin runs well statewide, and particularly in the Atlanta media market.

“Her popularity in the Atlanta suburbs,” Feldman writes about the mayor, “traditionally part of the Republican base, gives Franklin the potential to alter the partisan equation that might otherwise make a Democratic victory more difficult.”

Let’s see what we have here: A popular black Democratic mayor of a large city who has impressed many white, Republican suburbanites and who starts off with a lead over a Republican opponent with lower statewide name ID. And, of course, someone who is well positioned to win an open Senate seat.

Haven’t I seen this movie before? And since I have, why should I expect the ending to be different this time?

Obviously, the parallels between Kirk’s profile and Franklin’s are eerie. A June 2002 University of Houston Center for Public Policy poll showed Kirk leading Republican John Cornyn by 8 points (36 percent to 28 percent), and a Bennett, Petts and Blumenthal poll connected at nearly the same time for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed the former Dallas mayor with better name identification and a better favorable-to-unfavorable ratio than Cornyn.

Kirk’s early statewide strength was boosted by his standing in the Dallas suburbs, much as Franklin’s is in metro Atlanta. Kirk, I was told at the time by Democratic insiders and spinmeisters, was going to get a big minority vote (black and Hispanic) and hold on to enough normally Republican voters who liked his performance as mayor to deliver a Lone Star State Senate seat to the Democrats for the first time since the election of 1988, when then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was reelected.

Franklin is a popular mayor and would be an interesting Democratic candidate. She had never been an elected official prior to her November 2001 election as mayor, instead serving as city manager, an executive with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic games and as a member of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

But Franklin has more liabilities than the EMILY’s List poll and the poll memo acknowledge. She’d face many of the same problems that Kirk encountered, and he received 43 percent of the vote and lost by 12 points.

In a statewide contest, the mayor would invariably be identified as the “Atlanta candidate,” a potentially fatal association everywhere in the state except metro Atlanta.

Her race would be an asset among some voters but a liability to others. Yes, both the state attorney general and the state labor commissioner are black, but federal offices and federal issues are a different matter in conservative Southern states. Running as the Democratic nominee would undoubtedly force Franklin into a liberal corner, much as it did Kirk.

Local officeholders can often avoid litmus-test issues, but those same issues are unavoidable in a high-profile federal race. The Mayor’s Web site biography notes that she has “focused on improving daily government operations, with gutsy initiatives like the Pothole Posse [seven street repair crews] … and the TIPS Hotline [for reporting misconduct by city employees and contractors].”

As a Senate candidate, she’d be forced to address abortion, the death penalty, federal taxes, the war in Iraq and other issues, and she’d likely take political action committee money from groups that would define her agenda and ideology. So much for “gutsy” issues like potholes.

I’m not certain whether Franklin, who has been in office for only 15 months, will run for the Senate. But I’m pretty sure that I know what will happen if she is the Democratic nominee in 2004. You see, I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends.