OPINION: Changing of the guard coming for Democrats at state Capitol

Georgia state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, speaks at a press conference called by Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Lawmakers are urging Gov. Brian Kemp to call a special legislative session on gun violence. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, speaks at a press conference called by Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Lawmakers are urging Gov. Brian Kemp to call a special legislative session on gun violence. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

President Joe Biden may be shooting for four more years in office, but that isn’t the case at the Georgia state Capitol, where the General Assembly’s top two Democrats have announced they’re retiring from office at the end of this year.

The simultaneous departures of House Minority Leader James Beverly and Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler set up what could be a generational change for state Democrats, even as Democrats at the national level are pushing for more of the same.

Butler, 82, has been in the Senate since 1999, and a member of the Senate leadership for more than 20 years. Beverly, 55, has spent more than half of his twenty-plus years in office climbing the leadership ranks. But like Democrats nationally, the party in Georgia is fueled by young progressive voters ready for change and, at the General Assembly, a return to the majority.

In an interview with the Politically Georgia podcast, Beverly said he’s ready to go — and that it’s time for Georgia Democrats to consider their way forward as well. “The caucus has to make some real decisions, I think this is a great time for folk to sort of stress test the system to see what we look like as we move forward,” he said.

Will Democrats take a consensus-driven approach that is more palatable to moderate voters, or a more confrontational path, which progressive activists crave? Democrats’ minority status in both chambers means that leaders must balance the desire to push for base priorities against the reality that they simply don’t have the numbers to work their will without Republicans.

Leaders in legislative chambers don’t just set the tone and the agenda for their members. They also raise money, strategize on policy, and act as the face of the party they’re helping to lead. And if their party is in the minority, as Georgia Democrats have been for years, it’s also on the leaders to help grow the party numbers toward the majority.

Beverly said the added roles began to weigh on him as leader. “Your constituency changes to those 78 members. I’ve got to take care of those folks,” he said. “And so it pulled me away, quite frankly, from the folks who are in (my) community who need housing, who need transportation, who need jobs.”

Others are eager to step in. Among the names being floated to replace Beverly in the top House spot are state Rep. Billy Mitchell, the chair of the House Democratic caucus who is also close with the Biden White House; state Rep. Sam Park, the well-regarded minority whip from Gwinnett County, and state Rep. Tanya Miller, a freshman who is a former prosecutor and frequent guest on MSNBC.

State Rep. Derrick Jackson, who ran for lieutenant governor last cycle, state Rep. Park Cannon, the secretary of the caucus, and Stacey Evans, a former candidate for governor, have also all been mentioned for higher spots.

“There is going to be discussion in the next few months, after Sine Die, about who is going to be the Minority Leader, whip, chair, etcetera, and I definitely want to be part of that conversation,” said Jackson, a retired Naval commander.

Along with working on legislative priorities, “The next leadership team will have to make sure that we’re in a position to make sure Democrats are given our best shot in 2026,” he said.

Cannon is one of the youngest and most progressive members in the chamber. She would like to rise above her current spot as secretary, and she knows what she’d like to see in the next minority leader.

“I’m looking for a member who has shown a long-term commitment to Georgia, someone who is organized and has staff, who pays their dues and is compliant with the rules of the House,” she said. Above all, she wants someone forward-thinking with a vision for the future.

“It’s about members who are proximate to the process, instead of sidelining themselves or invisibilizing themselves, which sometimes members do to get political cover.”

Cannon credits Beverly for working within the GOP-led House to push issues like Medicaid expansion “past the point of no return,” along with issues of maternal mortality, economic development, and education.

When Gloria Butler leaves the Senate, she’ll leave behind a caucus largely satisfied with her work-horse approach to the post. She’s credited with professionalizing Democrats’ leadership and media operations. And like Beverly, she’s seen her caucus numbers grow while she’s been leader.

State Sen. Elena Parent, the current caucus chair, Sen. Harold Jones, the Democratic whip, and state Sen. Sonya Halpern, the vice chair, are all on fellow members’ radars as likely candidates to move up.

Jones, a lawyer from Augusta, said there’s more to being in the minority than trying to block GOP measures.

“If you’re in the minority, you can certainly try to push more Democratic issues and we do that aggressively,” he said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to figure out how to actually improve legislation that you don’t necessarily 100% agree with, to find a way to fit in and still make a difference.”

The new leadership teams won’t be chosen until new members are elected in November. But the announcements have already kicked off rounds of palace intrigue about who wants to run for leadership spots and who might get them.

Beverly said he won’t get involved in deciding who will follow him.

“Thank god these are some very smart, very capable people, both on the House side and the Senate side,” he said. “So I think Georgia is going to be in great hands.”

When he walks out the doors of the Capitol on his last day, he said, his work — and all of his jobs — will be done.