Georgia Dem leader delivers defiant farewell message

‘We are the next battleground state.’
Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter. AJC/Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter. AJC/Alyssa Pointer

Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter said Saturday he would not seek another term as the party's leader, triggering a new race to lead the state organization ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

In a farewell address to supporters, Porter slammed Gov.-elect Brian Kemp as a “morally corrupt man who knows he has to cheat to win.” And he urged his party to redouble Stacey Abrams’ efforts to register new voters and energize core supporters.

“We are the next battleground state,” he said in an interview. “We want to continue to define who we are and what we are fighting for. I hope we take what we have built to the next step. That’s why it’s time for me to step aside – we need those younger faces and voices to step up.”

While it was long expected, Porter’s decision sets up a Jan. 26 election to run the party’s apparatus at a crucial time for Georgia Democrats.

Several high-profile Democrats are positioning themselves to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue in two years. And the narrow margins in November seem sure to position Georgia as a pivotal 2020 state in the presidential race.

The field running to succeed Porter is already taking shape. State Sen. Nikema Williams, long the vice-chair of the party, intends to run for the post. So is Daniel Blackman, a Forsyth County businessman who chairs the party's 7th District.

Other notable figures have said they won’t run for the seat, including Cobb County Democratic chair Michael Owens. He wrote supporters Saturday urging the next party chair to better leverage county leaders and commit to closing the divide between rural Georgia and metro Atlanta.

Porter, newspaper publisher from Dublin, had positioned himself as a bridge between the party's rural roots and its more progressive Atlanta base, openly talking about his changing views on issues such as gay marriage and gun control.

In the interview Saturday, he said the party needs to find new ways to connect with voters in rural Georgia after Kemp and the GOP slate won huge margins in the state’s agricultural heartland.

“The areas of the state that didn’t go blue need Democrats now more than ever,” he said. “That’s where the funding for education and expansion of Medicaid is needed the most – and we need to show why it’s important.”

A rebuke

First elected to the Georgia House in the early 1980s, Porter served three terms as House minority leader before an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010. Three years later, in 2013, he was elected to take command of a party in full retreat.

Democrats had been clobbered in the 2010 and 2012 elections, and the party hardly had enough cash in reserves to buy a used car. Its previous chair, Mike Berlon, was forced to resign amid a revolt from activists and legal problems that would send him to prison.

The race for Berlon’s seat set up a proxy battle between rival Democratic forces, and Porter’s victory was a rebuke of powerful party leaders, including then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Gov. Roy Barnes, who both endorsed his opponent.

He faced the formidable task of shoring up the organization’s finances, wooing candidates to represent the party and helping to reshape its message.

Swift changes weren’t in the cards. Porter’s critics called for audits and leadership changes after Republicans swept statewide seats in 2014 and 2016. Party infighting ramped up as Obama’s tenure in office winded down.

But Donald Trump’s victory and Abrams’ candidacy helped energize Georgia Democrats ahead of this November’s vote. That election brought the same results – a GOP statewide victory – but far tighter margins.

With Abrams at the top of the ticket - and a closely coordinated effort between party and campaign - Democrats came closer to winning the governor’s race than any time since 1998 and forced a December runoff in two other statewide contests.

Down the ballot, the party rang up victories across suburban Atlanta. Lucy McBath ousted Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in the 6th District, Democrats flipped about a dozen state legislative seats, and the party's record cash haul allowed it to expand its infrastructure.

Porter said those gains will help Democrats block “horrible” legislation under the Gold Dome and lay the groundwork for a fiercely contested presidential election.

He’s set to continue as publisher of the Dublin Courier Herald but said he’ll find new ways to “stay engaged and keep holding those who abuse their power accountable.”

He’s not ready to make a formal endorsement in the race to succeed him -- but strongly suggested he will back Williams.

“Nikema has been very much a part of getting us to this point. She has stature here in the state and nationally,” said Porter. “And I would like to see us continue the momentum we’ve built.”