After he lost his come-back bid for governor in 2010, former Gov. Roy Barnes returned to his law practice just off the Marietta Square and spent more time with his cattle on his farm in Powder Springs.
The millionaire Democrat also stopped giving money to the Democratic Party of Georgia.
“I think the Democratic Party has to get its act together before I give to them again,” said Barnes last week from his office.
But Barnes, 65, has hardly gone out to pasture.
In the nearly three years since losing to Gov. Nathan Deal, Barnes has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to individual Democratic candidates and Democratic causes. And his law office in a retrofitted church has become a political incubator.
Hopeful Democratic candidates make the pilgrimage to meet with the former governor and legislator, seeking pearls of wisdom from the man who has become His Eminence of the Party in Exile, a man who has tried to keep the organization breathing until better times return.
Last week, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, announced her candidacy for her father’s old seat. She is also one of the hopefuls who has sought out Barnes, as did John Barrow, the Georgia congressman who was the Democratic front runner until deciding not to run.
Nunn is, to Barnes’ experienced view, the right person at the right time to help start swinging the state blue again. Barnes’ stunning loss of the governor’s office in 2002 to former Gov. Sonny Perdue set the stage for a sweeping Republican takeover of Georgia. But a growing number of black and Hispanic voters in the state, coupled with some suburban whites again leaning Democratic, may set the stage for another upset, he said.
“She’s exactly what the Democrats need — a young white woman,” said Barnes, adding it will be a few years before a black Democrat can win statewide. “The Republicans think their problem is with Hispanic and black people. It’s not. It’s young white women and younger educated whites.”
Nunn would be an underdog against a Republican opponent but Barnes knows the tide of change can be sudden and cruel. “You can never tell when it’s time,” he said. “I know that first hand.”
At a time when no Democrat holds statewide office, Barnes’ history and quiet activism makes him “the most significant behind-the-scenes Democrat in the state,” said David Worley, former chair of the state Democratic Party. “Roy is the only person from that last generation (of Democrats elected to high office) still working to hold things together.”
Rusty Paul, a former state senator who also chaired the state Republican Party, said, “Roy basically funded the (state Democratic) party out of his own pocket to keep it from closing the doors.”
A review of state political campaign disclosure records show Barnes and his law firm contributed $330,000 to the state Democratic Party between 2007 and 2011. He contributed about that much again between 2006 and 2012 to a host of state and local candidates, as well as Democrat organizations, according to records.
After turning his back on party officialdom, Barnes has attempted to avoid the middleman. (The state Democratic Party has had money-raising problems and former chairman Mike Berlon resigned two months ago after being accused of neglecting and defrauding legal clients. Berlon has disputed the allegations.) Since 2010, Barnes has contributed $40,000 to Georgia’s WIN List, an organization aimed at “recruiting, training and supporting the election of progressive Democratic women,” according to its website.
Also, since 2011, he has given as much as $100,000 to Better Georgia, a liberal-leaning organization that has continually tweaked Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who bested Barnes in 2010. Barnes likens Better Georgia to a “guerrilla organization. They’ve taken a shoestring budget and built a really good opposition organization.
“It’s a great bang for the buck,” he said. “I give money to candidates and groups who are efficient.”
The ‘country’ lawyer
It’s clear Barnes relishes his station in life. His office carries the aroma of his pipe smoke. He leans back in his chair often and laughs hard. He enjoys his view from the old church he converted into work space. And he takes off early each Friday to head to his Powder Springs farm to tend to his herd of Polled Hereford cattle.
“We still farm; I practice law; I live off the square,” he said. “It’s the way it used to be.”
He plays off his rural roots, often telling folks in an exaggerated Southern accent, “I’m just a poor ol’ country lawyer, please send some business my way.” The statement usually draws giggles or eye rolls, given that he is a ruthless litigator and a millionaire many times over.
The ambitious son of a Mableton general store owner, Barnes was elected in 1974 to the state Senate at age 26 and, after a failed shot at the governor’s office in 1990, Barnes won in 1998 and threw himself into changing the state. He tackled transportation, education and pushed through an effort to take the Confederate battle emblem off the state flag. Barnes raised $22 million for his 2002 re-election campaign but his headlong efforts backfired. He was driven from office in a stunning defeat by a strong contingent angered at the flag change, teachers riled about education reform and aRepublican surge.
As he left office, Atlanta’s silk-stocking law firms came calling. But Barnes blanched at the idea of hitting the cocktail circuit to drum up legal business. It seemed as dreadful as sitting in a room for hours and calling people for political contributions. Instead he chose to be a full-time volunteer for six-months at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, representing poor clients.
“It was a great way to decompress,” he said. Also, it was a low-pressure way to get his game back as a litigator, not unlike a Major League pitcher heading to Double-A ball to regain his fastball.
He vowed to not represent insurance companies if he could help it, and mixes medical malpractice cases (he just settled one) with lawsuits against payday lenders. He is representing pro bono state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a civil rights leader recently charged with fraud. Barnes, a longtime colleague and friend of Brooks, said federal prosecutors are over-reaching in their charges against him.
Barnes, too, has joined forces in a lawsuit with former political enemy Glenn Richardson, the former state Speaker who engineered a Republican takeover of the Legislature. The two of them are suing Georgia Power, alleging the utility has overcharged consumers.
Richardson said Barnes is “is one of the greatest minds I’ve ever known” - both in politics and legal matters.
Barnes has long had a Midas touch. When he left office, he was worth $12.3 million, according to a disclosure report. Seven years later, and despite a historic recession, Barnes and his wife, Marie, were worth $16.6 million.
He says his investing strategy is conservative. His father, Bill, told him “don’t ever buy anything you can’t stop by and check on.” Buy property and bank stock, dad advised, because those were solid. Barnes’ 2010 campaign disclosures list 49 properties and half of his two dozen stock holdings were banks. “I took some licks with those stocks,” he said. The property didn’t cause Barnes the same concern because he owned most of them outright.
As his legal career took off again, so did visits from the young and ambitious.
In 2005, Scott Holcomb, a young Atlanta-area lawyer and Army vet with no political experience, called Barnes asking for face-time. Holcomb knew it was presumptuous. He was a “nobody” calling an ex-governor out of the blue. He wanted to run for secretary of state.
Barnes took Holcomb to a fried-chicken and sweet-tea joint and tried to talk him out of his lofty plans. He told him to start smaller, build up a base. Holcomb learned the hard way. He came in fifth in the Democratic primary for secretary of state but then threw himself into political endeavors. In 2010 he won a seat as a state representative and weathered a brutal election in 2012 when Republicans saw his redrawn district as vulnerable. Barnes helped in that bruising election with money, time and strategy.
Holcomb said Barnes and other Dems saw his north DeKalb County district as a harbinger of the future, that swing areas could go Democratic. “I think like many of us, he’s hopeful of the trajectory of the party,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb, Barnes said, “is ready for prime time.”
‘My time is gone’
Barnes tries to dismiss talk of him being a political guru, saying there are plenty of young Democrats ready to take over.
Rusty Paul joked about Barnes being a Moses figure, “except the Democrats have already been to the promised land — and lost it.” Paul headed the Republicans in the 1990s when people said the GOP was on the verge of taking over. But, he added, being on the verge of taking over doesn’t make it happen. “Demographics don’t vote,” he said. Hard work and a clear message gets voters out, he said.
Still, he said Barnes provides a public service.
“The party in opposition is the police that keeps the party in power honest,” Paul said. “Helping to preserve a two-party system in Georgia is a good thing.”
Barnes said he has several good years left but understands he is becoming a bit of a museum piece, kind of like the century-old register he keeps at his office, the same one granddad used at his general store. Next to the register is an old photo of Georgia political legend Eugene Talmadge, the fiery former governor after whom Barnes was given his middle name.
Barnes himself is a pretty legendary spinner of a political yarn. After almost two hours, he was asked if he’d run again for office. “No!” Barnes quickly shot back.
“I have enjoyed every minute in politics,” he said, “But my time is gone.”