Georgia Democrats head into 2021 session with rare Black leadership team

Democrats in the state Senate picked Gloria S. Butler of Stone Mountain to lead the caucus in the upcoming legislative session. She and state Rep. James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon, will become the first two African Americans to serve simultaneously as the heads of the caucuses in each chamber of the General Assembly.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Democrats in the state Senate picked Gloria S. Butler of Stone Mountain to lead the caucus in the upcoming legislative session. She and state Rep. James Beverly, a Democrat from Macon, will become the first two African Americans to serve simultaneously as the heads of the caucuses in each chamber of the General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Rep. James Beverly had already congratulated his Senate counterpart on her election to lead the Democratic caucus in her chamber, but the weight of it hadn’t hit him yet.

A week prior, Beverly, a Macon Democrat, had been selected by his peers to lead the caucus in the House. And with the selection of state Sen. Gloria Butler in the upper chamber, it was only the second time when caucuses in both Georgia chambers would be led by Black legislators.

“Wow,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic. Especially the way in which the Democrats of Georgia are shaping up and have been — we’re an inclusive party.”

Having Black leadership at the top of the Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly better positions them to deal with racial injustice, said state Rep. James Beverly of Macon, who will be the House minority leader when the legislative session begins in January. “Lived experiences give you an opportunity to approach problem solving in a different way,” he said. “In this moment and this time I think it bodes well for Georgia.” BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Having Black leadership at the top of the Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly better positions them to deal with racial injustice, said state Rep. James Beverly of Macon, who will be the House minority leader when the legislative session begins in January. “Lived experiences give you an opportunity to approach problem solving in a different way,” he said. “In this moment and this time I think it bodes well for Georgia.” BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Both chamber caucuses had Black leaders for about six months in 2011, when Stacey Abrams led the House Democratic Caucus and Robert Brown led the caucus in the Senate. Brown left office that June to run for mayor of Macon.

Beverly, 52, is replacing state Rep. Bob Trammell of Luthersville, who lost his reelection bid earlier this month. Butler, 78, ran unopposed to take over the leadership of her caucus. She will replace outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson, who, like Butler, is from Stone Mountain.

Both Trammell and Henson are white.

Beverly said the shift in leadership reflects a change the state and nation has undergone. Beverly, an optometrist, was first elected in 2011. He was elected caucus chairman in 2017, his first leadership role.

After the deaths of Black people such as Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minneapolis, more people have engaged in the fight to battle racism, he said.

Having Black leadership better positions the caucus to address issues of racial injustice, said Beverly, a Baltimore native who’s lived in Macon since 1998.

“Lived experiences give you an opportunity to approach problem solving in a different way,” Beverly said. “In this moment and this time I think it bodes well for Georgia.”

Though Black voters are often recognized as the backbone of the Democratic Party, the road to power through political leadership positions has been long.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who’s served in the House since 1975, said the changing face of the caucus played a role in finally breaking that leadership barrier. Most of the members of each chamber’s Democratic caucuses are Black. There are more women than men as well.

“More women and more African Americans have entered the political equation over the last 20 years or so,” he said. “It was just a matter of time until this would occur.”

Abrams became the first woman and the first Black person to lead the House Democratic Caucus when she was elected by her peers in 2011. Charles Walker was chosen as the Senate’s first Black caucus leader in 1996, when Democrats were still the majority party.

Abrams in 2018 launched a competitive race for governor — when she was trying to make history as the state’s first Black and first female governor — that focused on registering and turning out voters of color across the state. She narrowly lost the election but used it to fuel a voting rights organization, Fair Fight Action, that raised millions of dollars and this year helped Democrats win the presidential vote in Georgia for the first time since 1992.

Butler, who served in a secondary caucus position during her first 12 years in office, broke another barrier when she was elected the first woman to lead a Senate caucus.

In her first year in the Senate in 1999, Butler was selected by Walker to be in the secondary position. Then she stayed there.

“Women and Black women were always in the background doing the real work,” Butler said. “So the time is now — we have become more bold and out front and have decided to take our places in the top leadership positions.”

State Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, will be the first woman to lead a state Senate caucus. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
State Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, will be the first woman to lead a state Senate caucus. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The Republican caucuses in each chamber have always been led by white men. Though a few Black Republican lawmakers have served over the years, all the GOP members currently serving are white. One Hispanic member will join the Senate caucus next year. There are several Republican women in the House, and two are serving in the Senate.

The highest-ranking Republican woman in the Georgia Legislature is state Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, who in 2010 made history when she was selected to be House speaker pro tem, the chamber’s No. 2 position. Her caucus nominated her to serve in that role again next term. White men fill all the other Republican caucus leadership positions.

Longtime lawmakers say for years, when white Democrats controlled the party and made up the bulk of the caucus, mostly white men held positions of power. Over the years, as more Blacks and more women joined the ranks, the demographics of those holding leadership positions changed.

“I don’t think it was a conscious effort to exclude more than it was the way things were,” said state Sen. Ed Harbison, a Black Columbus Democrat who was first elected in 1993. “There was not a definite effort to hold women back, but their talents were not always recognized.”

Democratic demographics in 2019-2020 Georgia General Assembly

Senate:

21 Democrats

14 Black members

7 non-Black members

14 women

7 men

House:

74 Democrats

50 Black members

24 non-Black members

42 women

32 men

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