Opinion: Calvin Smyre and the room where it finally happened

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Monday was an extraordinary day at the state Capitol. For Georgia Democrats, history had finally happened.

To witness members of the electoral college cast their votes for president and vice-president is usually the political equivalent of watching paint dry.

Participants are, in practical terms, anonymous. You can ask U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Even then a major GOP donor, she was an elector in 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney won the state. It’s not on her resume.

The outcomes of these votes are foreordained, and thus sparsely attended. With the holidays at hand, and a Christmas tree filling the rotunda, the building is usually empty of staff. The marble floors send echoes of lone footsteps from one end to the other.

But not this time. Security was tight, even if no armed protesters showed. A Republican attempt to gin up a cache of rival electoral votes was recorded by a scrum of TV cameras.

The effort was inspired by White House lawyers, the state GOP chairman explained. Among Republicans, it has become a sin to be seen as less than enthusiastic about the presidential contest that will not end.

The real business was done one floor above, in the Senate chambers, where 16 masked members of the electoral college gathered to cast their votes for Joe Biden, the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992, and for Kamala Harris, who will become the first woman of color to serve as vice president.

On Monday, watching paint dry was suddenly worthy of live, coast-to-coast TV coverage.

Again, the outcome was foreordained – here as well as across the country. But there was drama in the fact that President Donald Trump would — again — refuse to acknowledge the obvious. And in the fact that Georgia Democrats were doing something that hadn’t been seen since some of these electors were in high school.

“Georgians elected a Democratic president for the first time in 28 years. Twenty-eight years, y’all,” marveled Nikema Williams, who called the meeting to order. Williams, who currently chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, will replace the late John Lewis in Congress next month. She was 14 when Bill Clinton was first elected president.

The gavel was then placed in the hands of Stacey Abrams, a major stakeholder in the party’s rebirth. “This has been a long time coming, but I believe we’re in the right place at the right time,” Abrams began. She had just turned 19 when Georgia’s electoral college members last voted Democratic.

But in fact, when it comes to presidential contests, the Democratic drought in Georgia extends far beyond 1992. More than one victory will be needed before it can be declared over.

At the back of the chamber on Monday sat a masked state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1974.

When you vote for a presidential candidate each November, you actually vote for a slate of electors, who then cast their ballots in mid-December.

Since 1980, Smyre has served as an elector in nine of the last 11 presidential contests in Georgia. Only three times has his vote been part of the electoral college tally. And only twice has he cast that vote for a winner. Monday was one of those times.

In that sense, the history of Calvin Smyre is the history of Democratic presidential fortunes in Georgia.

Smyre and I have grown old at the Capitol together. I rang him up after the electoral college vote — we have had to keep our distance during the pandemic. He was in his office and mentioned that a clipping of something I’d written about him was still on his wall. What year? I asked. “Eighty-something,” was the answer.

Smyre, 73, is a now-retired banking executive. He is not a bookish fellow. Nor is he a pristine rhetorician. His genius has always been in his ability to establish relationships, to build consensus.

When Gov. Roy Barnes decided to pull down Georgia’s 1956 flag and its Confederate battle emblem in 2001, Smyre was at the center of the negotiations. Last June, in the bipartisan push for a hate crimes law in Georgia, he played the same role. “You cannot make a decision in the Capitol without consulting the dean of the House,” Abrams said on Monday.

By the time Smyre first arrived at the Capitol, at age 27, George Busbee had been elected governor, and Carter was already in the midst of his 1976 presidential run. But Smyre was able to join Carter’s re-election bid four years later.

In addition to his firm ties to Busbee, Smyre had a close friend in Ben Brown, a fellow Georgia legislator who had helped organize the first student sit-ins at Atlanta lunch counters — and who had become vice-chairman of Carter’s re-election effort.

Smyre took a leave of absence from his Synovus banking job and became Carter’s deputy campaign manager in Kentucky, driving through the state in a Buick Electra 225 hardtop with an eight-track tape player and a mobile phone the size of a suitcase — with a rotary dial and an antenna. “It weighed about 15 pounds. I thought I was somebody,” Smyre said.

He also became a Georgia elector for the first time, at the age of 33. His was the name no one knew, at the bottom of a list topped by Busbee, Coretta Scott King, and Phyllis Barrow — mother of future congressman John Barrow.

Carter lost to former actor and California Gov. Ronald Reagan. “It was a wonderful experience, but it was the longest drive I ever made back home. I think Carter took seven states, I believe,” Smyre said. Six states, actually, plus the District of Columbia.

So the first electoral college vote that Smyre cast was a rather hollow one.

Smyre wasn’t an elector in the next two presidential contests — Walter Mondale’s run in 1984 and Michael Dukakis’ in 1988. Georgia went Republican each time, first for Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush.

But he began working with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1990 or so, after meeting him at a function in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1992, Smyre worked with Gov. Zell Miller to move up Georgia’s presidential primary in order to give Clinton a needed boost. So there was no doubt that Smyre would be on the Democratic electoral slate for Georgia that year.

Clinton won Georgia, but even that victory foretold continued troubles for Democrats.

Clinton won the state with a 43.47% plurality. Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush’s losing percentage was 42.88%. Only 13,714 votes separated the two — a margin not unlike this year’s contest. (Biden won 49.51% of the thrice-counted vote on Nov. 3.)

Smyre was a Clinton elector in 1996, too, but Georgia went the way of Republican Bob Dole. Yet when Al Gore made his 2000 bid against George W. Bush, Smyre was an elector again.

That was his best chance at an ambassadorship, he quipped on Monday. He was on the balcony of a hotel in Nashville on the night of that election and saw the Gore motorcade crossing over the Cumberland River. “It stopped right at the top of the bridge, sitting there. We were wondering what had happened,” Smyre remembered. “That’s when Florida kicked in.”

News that the Florida contest had gone south had stopped the Gore’s motorcade in its tracks. Weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court would hand Florida and the presidency to Bush — a first that President Trump sought to replicate last week. With no success.

Smyre was on Georgia’s electoral slate for John Kerry in 2004, for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, for Hillary Clinton in 2016. None carried Georgia. So being able to cast a vote for Biden on Monday — in front of a national audience — was a pleasant change. “I don’t think there’s ever been as much attention in my 46 years,” he said.

I asked Smyre if he’d given any thought to retiring. If he’s not drawn into the Biden administration and his health holds up, Smyre told me, “I’ll do 50 and go home.”

But that wouldn’t preclude Smyre from becoming a Georgia elector for the 10th time — for a Biden re-election campaign in 2024.