Baker runs hard for governor's job

Baker runs hard for governor's job

June 8th, 2010 in Politics Regional

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9th District

* Voters in Georgia's 9th Congressional District will elect a new congressman today. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


To follow live election coverage tonight, go to

Thurbert Baker

* Party: Democrat

* Age: 57

* Home: Stone Mountain

* Education: Bachelor's degree from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1974; law degree from Emory University in 1979.

* Professional and political experience: He was elected to five terms as a state legislator from DeKalb County and was floor leader for former Gov. Zell Miller. In 1997, Miller later appointed him Georgia attorney general and he has won re-election to that post three times.

* Family: Baker and his wife, Catherine, a DeKalb schoolteacher, have been married three decades and have two daughters.

By Bill Torpy

Thurbert Baker's gubernatorial campaign had just moved into its new rental home last week and was soaking in the atmosphere of worn carpet, bare walls and rooms empty except for desks and laptop computers.

"The roof doesn't leak," Baker ventured of the quintessential political campaign HQ: a bare-bones operation where, over the next seven weeks, faithful volunteers and hired political operatives will put in long hours fueled by adrenaline, Diet Coke and fast food.

Baker is an undefeated veteran of eight campaigns -- five as a state representative from DeKalb County and three as state attorney general -- and says he is confident. But this one is different. It's a big-time race, and he's an underdog.

"This is going to be intense," he said, sitting in a sparse room that would do well for a police interrogation. "You have to take tired out of your vocabulary."

Baker knows he has his work cut out for him. When he announced his bid for governor in April 2009, the proven vote-getter was briefly the Democratic front-runner. Baker got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in the 2006 election. The fact that he is African-American seemed to bode well for him in the 2010 primary because about half the state's Democratic voters -- maybe more -- are black.

But then former Gov. Roy Barnes joined the field, relegating the six other Democratic candidates to a battle for second place and the chance to face him in a runoff. Last week's endorsements of Barnes by former Atlanta Mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin left Baker shrugging.

"I don't know how productive this name-dropping game can be," he said. "People want to know what Thurbert Baker will do, not who your friends are. Barnes' entry hasn't changed my focus. I've run three times as attorney general. I'm not doing it any differently" with Barnes in the race.

As of March 31, the last campaign contribution reporting period, Baker was second in cash on hand among Democratic candidates with $624,000 to Barnes' $2.8 million. As of the start of the year, Baker had collected at least $68,000 from lobbyists in the previous four years, by far topping all other Democrats but behind Republican governor candidates John Oxendine and Eric Johnson.

As a state elected official, Baker was not able to raise money while the Legislature was in session through the end of April. He said he has been raising enough money to wage a television air campaign soon. Besides, Baker's backers say, money does not ensure victory. Barnes raised nearly $20 million in 2002 but was beaten by Sonny Perdue, then a relatively unknown state senator who raised just $3 million.

It's not like Baker doesn't have key supporters. DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown is backing the attorney general, saying he has known him for more than two decades and was impressed when watching then-state Rep. Baker push a bill through the Legislature.

"He enjoyed a tremendous amount of respect in both parties," Brown said. "The state Capitol is notorious for partisan politics. But he had relationships with everybody."

As attorney general, Baker largely has avoided the limelight, but he did get national attention this year when he refused to sue the federal government over President Obama's health care legislation, angering Perdue and causing House Republicans to start an effort to impeach him. He also battled Perdue in 2003 when the two came down on different sides in a political redistricting case.

Baker's action this year was applauded by Democrats and attracted the kind of news coverage he surely enjoyed. But in an interview, Baker smiled and said the publicity "cuts both ways. It's not about the headlines or the 6 o'clock news. It's about getting your job done. I can't be concerned about the political winds of the state and do my job."

While Baker may have turned off some in the black community, he has won over many other Georgians because of a hard-line approach on crime. He supports capital punishment and, as a floor leader for former Gov. Zell Miller in the 1990s, helped push the passage of the tough "two-strikes" legislation that mandated life sentences with no parole for the second conviction of a number of violent offenses.

But Baker said he doesn't just want to be a lock-'em-up candidate. He said he sees some problems in the wide disparity in sentences for similar crimes in different jurisdictions across the state and says that must be addressed.

"No question we have to make sure our law enforcement system is used fairly," he said toward the end of a 90-minute interview. "You have to figure a way that justice is the same across the state."