’56 flag defenders out to oust Perdue

By JIM THARPE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/24/06

Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002, and now they’re rallying their troops for a run at Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Supporters of the 1956 state flag with its dominant Confederate cross plan a final all-out charge to oust a Georgia governor who outflanked their no-retreat-no-surrender efforts to keep the controversial banner flying.

"We can’t elect our own governor. We’ve tried, but we don’t have enough votes. What we can do is make ’em one-termers," said Elijah Coleman, a Mableton member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Political experts — and even some from their own ranks — say the flag forces are fighting a long-decided battle. And they’re going into the skirmish with divided troops.

"Our members are pretty disgusted with Perdue and the promises he broke," said Jeff Davis, the Gainesville-based chairman of Georgia Heritage Council, an umbrella group that includes leaders representing other heritage groups. "They certainly will not be supporting him. Some will vote

[for Democratic candidate Mark Taylor, the current lieutenant governor]. Some will go fishing that day. Some will support a third-party candidate."

There are hundreds of Civil War heritage groups across the state that range from groups of "hardcore flaggers," who dress in Confederate uniforms and wave Rebel flags in protest, to sedate organizations that attempt to protect battlefields from overzealous developers. It’s difficult to get an accurate reading of their true numbers or ballot power going into the governor’s race, just as it was four years ago.

In 2002, Barnes was the target of many disenchanted interest groups, the flaggers among them.

Polls showed Barnes leading an underfunded Perdue, despite voter anger about his removing the old 1956 flag and replacing it with what became known as the "Barnes Rag," a blue banner that included a postcard-sized version of the controversial flag.

Teachers felt Barnes blamed them for school problems, some voters resented his heavy-handed redrawing of political boundaries and some suburbanites bristled at his push to link I-75 and I-85 with a toll road about 20 miles north of I-285.

Some Georgians considered the 1956 flag a racist symbol. Many business leaders thought it was an inappropriate banner for a state competing for international business.

But many in the heritage groups saw attempts to change the flag as a heavy-handed nod to political correctness. And they feared it was part of a trend to diminish or eliminate all Confederate symbols in a region devastated by the Civil War.

The most visible group opposing Barnes’ re-election became the pro-1956 flag forces. They loudly vowed — in a united voice — to run Barnes from office. The most strident "flagged" the Democratic governor at campaign events, turning out in full regalia and bearing signs that read: "Boot Barnes."

And they were courted by Perdue, who promised to let Georgians vote on a new state banner. One of his brochures read: "Sonny Perdue … as governor will support a referendum to let us decide what flag we want to represent Georgia."

Barnes’ missteps helped Perdue win a historic upset and become the first Georgia GOP governor in 130 years.

Through his floor leaders in the state Legislature, Perdue did introduce a bill that would have let voters decide among the 1956 flag, the Barnes flag and what would eventually become the current state flag, which is based on the first national flag of the Confederacy.

However, that plan fell apart in the final minutes of the final day of the 2003 Legislature when the then-Democratic-controlled House removed the 1956 flag from the referendum. In one of the most dramatic moments in recent legislative lawmaking, then-House Speaker Terry Coleman (D-Eastman) cast a tie-breaking vote to remove the 1956 flag from the referendum.

Then, in a move that many ’56 flag supporters view as political back-stabbing, Perdue signed off on the compromise. Voters later overwhelmingly approved the current flag.

The results never stopped Coleman, who has flagged Perdue more than 70 times from Perry to Chattanooga.

"I was Barnes’ biggest enemy. Now I’m trying to be Perdue’s biggest enemy," he said.

Coleman carries an 8-foot-long sign with "Sonny Lied" emblazoned across the front to the flaggings. He proudly points reporters to the Web site georgiaheritagecouncil.org, which carries detailed accounts and photos of more than 150 flaggings at Perdue events.

In one, Bud Cranford recounted his close encounter with Perdue at a Macon protest.

"As we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries under the watchful eyes of his security detail, I couldn’t resist commenting that if he’d ‘give us a Fair Flag vote we’d be working for you rather than against

you,’ " Cranford writes on the Web site. "He made no comment to this suggestion."

Perdue doesn’t mention the flag in his current campaign, but his aides acknowledge the controversy has cost votes.

"We have a lot of support among people who value Georgia’s heritage, but we know there are some folks whose support we lost," said Perdue campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey.

"That’s part of living in a free society, and we respect their dedication to an issue that they feel is important."

Political experts say it’s difficult to determine the strength of the flag vote, but estimate it is no more than 5 percent to 10 percent of registered voters.

In the July Republican primary, flag candidate Ray McBerry got 11.6 percent of the vote (48,498 votes) against Perdue, who got 370,756 votes.

Political scientists say those small numbers mean the flag vote will not be much of a factor, unless the election comes down to razor-thin margins between Perdue, Taylor and Libertarian candidate Garrett Hayes.

"That vote will probably split and not make a difference one way or the other," said Emory University political scientist Merle Black. "It’s not an issue that any of the politicians even talk about. They consider it a settled issue."

Flag supporters point out, however, that Hayes is polling strongly for a Libertarian and attribute that to the flag vote. He got 6 percent in a recent InsiderAdvantage poll — Libertarians usually get less than 3 percent — where Perdue had 52 percent and Taylor 32 percent with 10 percent undecided. Heritage groups estimate their ballot power at 100,000 to 150,000 votes — Perdue beat Barnes by about 105,000 votes.

Hayes said he likes the current state flag and would not back a new flag referendum. However, he said he would support a state constitutional amendment to permit voter initiatives, which would give voters the power to petition for a new flag vote.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) said he thinks most Georgians are satisfied with the current flag and the 2004 referendum that led to it.

"I don’t think it will be a major issue," said Mullis, a Perdue supporter. "The process was open this time. And it was not with Gov. Barnes."

Freddie Parris, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the north Georgia town of Trenton, said he wanted the ’56 flag in the referendum. But he is still backing Perdue, even though he has been called a "renegade" by others in his organization.

"You have to look at the overall picture," Parris said. "We have a flag that represents our first national flag. And we’ve had some bills passed to protect our monuments and such.

"The way I look at it, it’s time to move forward. You can’t win every battle. This one is over."

Coleman, however, disagreed. He spent the weekend at the North Georgia State Fair in Marietta passing out anti-Perdue fliers.

And he plans to flag Perdue at every opportunity before the Nov. 7 election.

"We’ll try to catch him every where he goes," Coleman said. "We’re never going to give up on the flag."

On The Web: http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/stories/2006/09/23/0924metflaggers.html