Democrats take aim at Perdue’s flag stance ahead of ag secretary hearing

Critics of former Gov. Sonny Perdue hope to force him to apologize for his role in Georgia’s flag debate ahead of his confirmation hearing as Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary this week.

As a state senator, Perdue opposed then-Gov. Roy Barnes’ plan to shrink the size of the Rebel emblem on the state flag – a vote that still irks Georgia Democrats. He made the flag a focal point of his 2002 campaign for governor, pledging to hold a referendum on the symbol.

Bobby Kahn, Barnes’ former chief of staff, said Democrats should press Perdue on “the divisiveness of his use of the flag for political gain” at Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

“Perdue has many capable advisers, and I’m probably the last person he wants advice from,” Kahn wrote, “but he can begin to dispense with this issue simply by saying what he never has: that he regrets his 2001 vote and his use of the flag in his gubernatorial campaign.”

Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan painted Kahn as a sore loser still smarting over his boss’s defeat.

“Bobby Kahn is still bitter 15 years after running a losing gubernatorial campaign and that obviously requires therapy,” he said.

In 2001, Barnes engineered a vote by the Legislature that pulled down the 1956 state flag, which had been adopted at the height of the fight against integration and prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem.  The move infuriated many "flaggers" who dogged the Democratic governor throughout his re-election campaign in 2002.

Perdue promised a statewide vote to supporters of the '56 flag. But after his surprise 2002 victory, lawmakers watered down the new Republican governor's referendum initiative so that it became a non-binding contest with two choices. One was the flag that Barnes had raised in place of the '56 banner. The other was yet another flag, with a less volatile Confederate pedigree. The latter was raised immediately -- and had already been flying for nearly a year before voters registered their approval in a March 2004 vote. The 1956 was eliminated as a choice.

Kahn argued that if Perdue is confirmed without being confronted about questions about the debate, “how will Secretary Perdue’s fairness not be called in question in dealing with our black farmers who have a history of unfair treatment by USDA?”

Perdue might be anticipating such a question. He's got U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, introducing him at Thursday's hearing. Scott is African-American.

“The fact is that Sonny led one of the few relatively seamless flag changes in the South.  People got to vote and just about everyone was happy with the result,” McLagan said. “Our flag is beautiful, historic and unifying.  It is also a symbol of Sonny’s ability to accomplish difficult things.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.