Like father, like daughter: Decoding Michelle Nunn’s Senate deliberations

Like father, like daughter.

A great deal of stealth has accompanied Michelle Nunn’s deliberations over whether she intends to try and follow her dad’s footsteps into the U.S. Senate next year.

Her public calendar has been a desert. Badgering from journalists no doubt has increased exponentially since last week, when U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Augusta, withdrew his name from consideration – and all but handed Nunn the 2014 Democratic nomination. If she would but take it.

Nunn has responded with silence. This is frustrating for people in my profession.

But silence also suggests that Michelle Nunn has inherited Sam Nunn’s thorough approach to political decision-making. And that she recognizes the immense value of the blank slate she would bring to the contest.

Though Michelle Nunn, 46, dallied with a Senate race 10 years ago, she has never run for public office. She has spent the last 20 years in Atlanta, running the Hands On Atlanta volunteer organization and its parent, the Points of Light foundation established by President George H.W. Bush. A Republican president, you’ll recall.

Michelle Nunn’s Internet footprint is so small that, in its search for damaging fodder, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been able to point only to an 18-month-old Washington Post op-ed piece, in which she said the generation of young people that produced Occupy Wall Street had a larger, legitimate point.

“These people-powered movements may not have stopped the markets in their tracks, but they are creating the demand for new forms of corporate behavior and ethical imperatives. The winning brands of the future will be ones that authentically respond,” she wrote.

Radical stuff, that.

So if we’re to get a sense of what Michelle Nunn is thinking, it’s necessary to talk to the people she’s talking to. Former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin is an adviser. Michelle Nunn also recently made a trip to Marietta to talk to former Gov. Roy Barnes.

State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the leader of the House Democratic caucus, once served as chairman of the board of Hands On Atlanta – which she called a “behemoth of volunteerism.” She dismissed the notion that Michelle Nunn is under any deadline pressure.

“I think the sense of urgency that surrounds this conversation is manufactured,” Abrams said. “While fundraising is always important, I think it’s more important to have a committed candidate who has a well thought-out plan.”

Three Republican members of Congress leaped into the Senate race with a minimum of preliminaries. But David Perdue, former CEO of Dollar General and Gov. Sonny Perdue’s first cousin, may be a better model. Like Michelle Nunn, he’s a first-timer.

David Perdue, a Republican, on Tuesday announced the formation of an exploratory committee. Any formal declaration is still weeks away. Look for Michelle Nunn to tread this path – but not until after President Barack Obama’s Sunday visit to Atlanta.

State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, has worked with Michelle Nunn through Points of Light. Carter said the foundation’s origins make Nunn “very interesting. Her relationship with the Bush family is very close.”

“She is undeniably an independent. That will be her pitch, as an independent-minded Democrat,” Carter said. “Different than her dad, but independent nonetheless, with good relations across the political spectrum.”

Many have pointed out that a Nunn hasn’t been on a Georgia ballot since 1990. So I asked Carter, the grandson of the former president, about the power of a family name. “It means that people will remember who she is. It gives people an undeniable reference point — and that is incredibly valuable,” Carter said. “Her dad is one of the most well-respected politicians in the history of the state, especially in places where Democrats have not done well recently.”

Moreover, Sam Nunn has never become wrapped up in the hyper-partisanship of the last decade. “There’s a lot more people who hate Jimmy Carter than hate Sam Nunn,” Jason Carter said.

State Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone, recently sought out Michelle Nunn for breakfast and an introduction. Fludd is originally from Charleston, and pointed to parallels between Nunn and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who ran a business-oriented campaign for Congress – but lost last week to former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican.

Fludd described Nunn as having a “keen sense of having a solid relationship with the business community.”

Michelle Nunn has also sought advice from Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta. He turned 81 last month.

I asked Young where he would put Michelle Nunn ideologically. “I wouldn’t. And that’s what I told her,” he said. “I said, ‘Look. You don’t need to go in anybody’s box. Any label that anybody puts on you, limits you.’”

Georgia Democrats have been in free-fall since 2002. But something in Michelle Nunn reminds Young of 1970, the year when Jimmy Carter knitted together the black-and-white coalition that allowed his party to survive here for another 30 years.

“She’s been a part of the growth and development of this state all of her life. And she’s never done it for money, or for credit,” Young said. “She’s not ideological.” That last point is the key to success in Southern politics, he said.

“We’re not ideological in the South. We’re ideologically ignorant. Ideologies don’t make sense to us,” he said. And that’s a good thing because it allows practicality to thrive, the former mayor said.

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