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Posted: 6:41 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013

Jason Carter thinks about a run for governor -- and what that means 

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State Sen. Jason Carter
Jason Carter, D-Decatur, center, during debate in the state Senate last spring. Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com

By Jim Galloway

The odds of Jimmy Carter’s grandson, state Sen. Jason Carter, running for governor of Georgia next year remain somewhat slim.

The discord that has led to two GOP primary opponents for Nathan Deal comes from the incumbent governor’s right flank – fruit that’s out of the reach of any Democrat.

The re-emergence of allegations that the fix was in on ethics complaints lodged against Deal is certainly disturbing. Yet these days, scandal often takes a back seat to partisanship.

Nonetheless, Democrats in Washington and Georgia want to be prepared if an opportunity shows itself, and so intend to include young Carter’s name in a statewide poll. It’s a line of thinking that certainly hasn’t been discouraged by this week’s news that Michelle Nunn, Democratic daughter of the former Georgia senator, has raised $1.7 million in the first months of her U.S. Senate bid.

(By comparison, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, one of several GOP candidates in the Senate contest, raised $800,000 over the same period.)

Whether or not it pans out, Carter’s interest in the governorship – and his name wouldn’t be included in the survey if that interest didn’t exist – offers a glimpse of a Georgia political future in which the names of Nunn and Carter are intertwined. As they have been for the last 40 years.

Both are young, inside-the-Perimeter residents. She is 46. He is 38. They will have to share a crowded Democratic stage with many others, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, state Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, former state Sen. Connie Stokes of DeKalb County, and many others.

But Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter are emerging as the legacy candidates among Georgia’s next-generation Democrats. And they begin their political careers on a far friendlier footing than their famous forebears.

It’s no secret that Sam Nunn and Jimmy Carter didn’t always get along.

Most begin the story in 1971, shortly after Jimmy Carter was sworn in as governor. (He ran and lost in 1966 – something to remember.) U.S. Sen. Richard Russell had just died, and the new governor had to name someone to fill out the final months of the senator’s term.

Carter called the multiple contestants into his office for warm Cokes, cold sandwiches and his decision. “Those of us there were all close friends of Carter, and had worked very hard for Jimmy,” said Conley Ingram, then a young superior court judge in Cobb County.

Carter settled on David Gambrell, a Harvard-educated attorney who was already state party chairman – and had raised a boatload of money for the Carter campaign. Ingram himself wasn’t disappointed, and would later, at the age of 42, be appointed to the state Supreme Court.

But former Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who was also in that room and looking to revive his political career, was crushed. Vandiver initiated a rebellion against the new governor by mounting a Senate challenge to Gambrell in 1972.

But it was young Sam Nunn of Perry – never a member of Carter’s inner circle – who took advantage of the chaos, drew Gambrell into a Democratic primary runoff, and ultimately won the seat.

Nunn was already a five-year veteran of Washington when Carter was sworn in as president in 1977. The Carter Administration’s relationship with Congress was cool, Nunn included. But it became even more stilted when Carter began twisting arms for Senate approval of a treaty that promised an end to U.S. control of the Panama Canal.

Nunn ultimately supported the treaty, which passed, but he paid a price. Nunn was dogged by “truth squads” throughout the 1978 campaign, remembered Charlie Harman, who later became Nunn’s chief of staff – and later still, top aide to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. “It was a little bit like the tea party reaction today,” Harman said. “There was a bumper sticker – ‘We once had the Canal, now we have Nunn.’”

Supporters would later say the Panama Canal vote cost Nunn his chance at the White House.

The rapprochement between Carter and Nunn, we’re told, was something of a foxhole experience. In 1994, President Bill Clinton was attempting to oust military dictator Raoul Cedras from Haiti. He dispatched Carter, Nunn, and Colin Powell, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to negotiate the strong man’s departure – ahead of a threatened U.S. invasion.

With so many guns around, it was a near thing, and emotions apparently ran high enough to erase past resentments. It’s also helpful that both men have engineered exemplary post-Washington careers.

In a phone interview, Jason Carter, a Decatur attorney, declined to discuss his interest in the 2014 contest for governor. But Jimmy Carter’s grandson describes Sam Nunn’s daughter as a personal friend. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he helped Michelle Nunn with her philanthropic organization in pre-political times.

More importantly, they have now swapped political contributions. And Jason Carter sits on the finance committee of Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign.

Jim Galloway

About Jim Galloway

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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