A psychiatrist elbows his way into the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate

If biography were the only thing necessary in political campaigns, then the name of Branko Radulovacki would be doing a graceful pirouette on the tip of your tongue.

He was born in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia. His medical-researcher father took the family to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where the toddler Branko learned English.

The family migrated to Chicago and an American life in 1970, when Branko was 7. College and a job in investment banking followed soon enough. Then a master’s in business, a wife and two kids, and an advertising career. Somewhere there’s a portrait of him and Morris the Cat No. 2 of 9 Lives cat food fame.

After that came a 10-year hunt for his bliss via medical school and residency in Chicago and New Haven, Conn. Which led to a job as program director at the Ridgeview Institute in Smyrna and his own psychiatry practice on a high hill in Vinings overlooking the lush greenery of the Atlanta landscape.

“I built my practice working with some very-difficult-to-treat illnesses, people who were in acute crisis — suicidal, psychotic, addiction issues, detoxification, families in disarray and turmoil,” Radulovacki said last week during an interview in his office.

“I’m used to working with people who are in a great state of agitation,” he said. “I’ve treated Democrats, Republicans, libertarians and tea party members.”

But when “Dr. Rad” left his name with Georgia Democratic Party leaders this spring, to inform them that a psychiatrist’s insight gave him unique qualifications as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he couldn’t get his phone calls returned.

“Then I started reading about this anointing strategy that the folks in D.C. had come up with,” Radulovacki said.

The first-time candidate has become the odd man out in a Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate that’s being treated as delicately as a hothouse orchid. (As have John Coyne of Alpharetta and former Army Ranger Todd Robinson of Columbus, who have also announced their candidacies.)

Democrats here and in Washington, eager to nurse the state back into competition, at first courted U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Augusta, who resisted their blandishments. They have instead settled on Michelle Nunn, daughter of the former U.S. senator from Georgia. She announced in July.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has yet to utter the psychiatrist’s name.

That clearly chafes Radulovacki, a U.S. citizen of the first-generation. “I guess I’ve forced myself into this race. I don’t think it is democratic for voters to be told, ‘This is your choice,’ ” he said. “I just think there has to be something more — something other than what someone else has done, to make them a viable candidate.”

Informed that Nunn has had her own lengthy career as CEO of a major volunteerism organization in Atlanta, Radulovacki pulled up short. “That’s great, period,” he said. And the subject was dropped.

Whether wanted or not, “Dr. Rad” brings several new facets to the 2014 race for U.S. Senate. Georgia now has three physicians — all Republican — in Congress: Reps. Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Tom Price of Roswell.

Radulovacki would be the first M.D. to endorse Obamacare. “My belief is that it is going to succeed. And it’s going to succeed because there’s a real need for it,” he said. “There’s a need to have more people covered.”

“Dr. Rad,” a member of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, also brings an evangelical fervor to the contest that’s unlikely to be bent by a lack of official attention — or the advice of friends.

“They were very direct with me, about what they thought my chances were,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you in polite company the exact words they used. But it was very direct.”

The psychiatrist traces his introduction to Georgia’s public life to a 2007 investigative series in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called “Hidden Shame,” that focused on more than 100 suspicious deaths that occurred in seven state-run psychiatric institutions over a five-year period.

Radulovacki said he began pressing fellow mental health experts for a route to reform. “You would be better off going down to the Governor’s Mansion and tying yourself to the gates, naked,” one told him.

Ultimately, he joined a knot of specialists at the Carter Center. They successfully pressed for increased U.S. Justice Department intervention, he said. In 2010, the state settled, promising tens of millions of dollars for upgrades to the hospitals.

“It turned out I had played a key role in catalyzing that process to move forward,” Radulovacki said.

But the psychiatrist wasn’t finished with the very American process of self-definition. A 2011 bout with Stage 3 colon cancer, successfully treated, made vegans out of the doctor and his family. It was also during his illness that Radulovacki finally bowed to the inability of Americans to pronounce his Serbian name.

He is now nothing but “Dr. Rad.” On the phone, in business, on his campaign website. And he is ready to tie himself to another gate — and one more occupation.

The U.S. Senate campaign of Dr. Rad now has one paid staffer, Eric Gray. Who until recently served as spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia under Chairman Michael Berlon — the fellow who wouldn’t return those calls.

Berlon is now gone. He resigned from the job in June. Dr. Rad is still here — and will be for a while.