Democrats try to get on the same page at the Georgia Legislature

Raising the minimum wage. Preventing racial profiling. Strengthening the state’s ethics agency. Even legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

Georgia Democrats’ stinging defeat at the ballot box last month appears to have only galvanized rank-and-file members ahead of the Jan. 12 legislative session. But while the flurry of proposals may energize their base, it has yet to bridge a strategic divide among Democratic leaders in the House and Senate that could ruin their chance at playing spoiler.

That matters because Democrats more than ever this year have a chance to influence policy on some of the state’s most pressing issues. Expected votes on raising money to repair and replace Georgia’s aging transportation network, for example, could cause some conservative lawmakers to balk because of expected tax or fee increases, giving the minority party leverage to ensure passage.

“We do believe as an opposition party that we have a role to play to hold the majority party accountable,” said Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

The problem? Democratic leaders in either chamber don’t often work in concert on major issues. Now, members of those two groups are trying to solve the problem, which Fort said was “based on policy, not personality.”

Room for agreement

Georgia Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, both downplay concerns they are not on the same page.

Henson, an 18-year veteran with a low-key negotiating style, heads a spirited caucus facing a formidable challenge in the Senate, where Republicans hold a supermajority and control more than two-thirds of the chamber’s seats. Abrams, a rising star for the party with an increasingly national profile, must wrangle a larger group with diverse interests.

Between the two, Abrams is in better position to make a deal. Republicans in the House do not control a supermajority and, with the influence of groups such as the tea party, are more factionalized. Democratic votes in the chamber can often hold greater value for a bill’s passage.

The friction is often a difference in style about when to work with GOP leaders and when to hold tight.

Two years ago, Abrams released her caucus to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools after House Republican leaders agreed to a guarantee that local school systems wouldn’t be forced to bear alone the cost of such a school if the state approved it. The measure, opposed by Senate Democrats, eventually passed the Legislature and was approved by voters later that year.

A bill earlier this year to shrink municipal early-voting periods from 21 days to six passed the House after Abrams offered an amendment allowing local governments the power to keep a three-week early-voting period if they wanted it. Senate Democrats opposed the measure. It eventually failed.

Public education funding and voting rights are both core party issues. The results in those two cases didn’t spring from the caucuses working together but, rather, reacting to each other. Henson and Abrams, while friendly, did not sit down regularly to talk things through.

“We scheduled meeting after meeting that had been canceled,” Fort said. Abrams, he added, “probably meets with Republican leadership more than Senate Democratic leadership.”

Abrams, however, said conversations still happen between the two caucuses whether she is involved or not. “We don’t always agree,” she said, “but I think that could be said of other groups. I think we have a good working relationship.”

Henson, who met with his House counterpart last week at the annual legislative biennial conference at the University of Georgia, said the caucuses have too much in common. “There are always personal interests that go on,” he said, “but we’re going to work closely to try to address this.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who in January will mark his 41st year in the Legislature, will be among the party insiders set on brokering an internal agreement between the two chambers. Like the rest of his party’s leadership, he sees an opportunity for Democrats to help shape the debate over issues including transportation, and he doesn’t want to waste the chance.

“We’ve got a hill to climb, and I see this as a major issue for our state,” Smyre said. “We have to meet that challenge and come up with something we can agree on, something we can pass. And I think the caucus, all things being equal, that there’s room for us to come to some agreement.”

Horse-trading and consensus-building

Most Democratic proposals this year face overwhelming odds in the Republican-controlled statehouse, and those that have bipartisan support or Gov. Nathan Deal’s backing, such as an ethics overhaul, will likely end up being championed by a GOP lawmaker. Some will be fortunate just to get a hearing.

Yet they offer a glimpse of the party’s still-developing strategy as Democrats try to rebound from the GOP’s November victories, which allowed Republicans to retain commanding majorities in the Legislature and keep control of every statewide office.

“We have a great opportunity to reinvigorate our base, to establish our party as being compassionate and focused on issues that help working families, that support the neediest, and address the crisis we have in public education,” said state Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur. “Now is the time for our party to rebrand ourselves and find some common ground.”

The effort comes as the state party remains in turmoil after last month’s losses, and internal divisions over strategy could spill over into the Jan. 31 contest to pick a new statewide party leader. The party’s legislative leaders are still hashing out a cohesive agenda, but a few themes have already emerged.

Several prominent Democrats are behind a push to “ban the box,” which means people seeking work with state agencies would no longer need to disclose prior convictions on job applications. Deal has indicated he would sign an executive order to make that change, although he has yet to do so.

An additional ripe target for consensus involves an overhaul supported by Deal that would expand the state ethics commission and guarantee it more resources. Democrats looking to finagle something in return seem likely to press for stronger whistleblower protections.

Another measure would ban police officers from using race or ethnicity to stop a motor vehicle. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who sponsored the legislation, said it could become a bargaining chip next year for Republicans angling for Democratic help on other issues.

“This is one we can trade,” said Brooks, D-Atlanta. “I’ve been down there 34 years. And throughout my tenure, I have always come in with the attitude that we’ve got to be willing to trade, willing to compromise. The governor isn’t campaigning again, and he wants to make sure he gets big-ticket items through.”

But perhaps the biggest opportunity for Democrats involves the debate over transportation, as some squeamish Republicans indicate they would oppose efforts to raise the state sales tax or hike the fuel tax to pay for improvements.

Democrats could be in position to bridge that gap, and Henson said he believes his party can unite behind a call for more funding for transit in whatever proposal emerges.

“I’m confident we can get on the same page,” he said.