In the past, I would have written how metropolitan Atlanta has a population of nearly 6 million, many of whom are from somewhere other than Georgia. I would have noted that race relations in the state are much better than in most others simply because so many African-Americans, whites and those of other ethnic backgrounds share the same workplace and communities that one simply cannot survive either economically or socially without embracing a truly inclusive approach to life. I probably would have noted that, for those who are young or gay, the Atlanta area basically leads even cities such as San Francisco in both numbers and opportunities.
But I won’t let pride of my native land get in the way of reality. Right now, Georgia is a bruised and suffering Peach State. It is a state in need of a real “pick me up.”
Because the housing boom of the early 2000s met up with the post-1996 Olympic rush of humanity to metro Atlanta, when the economy went bust, the impact was double that to Georgia versus most other states. And while other neighboring states are showing signs of recovery, unemployment remains extremely high, and two polls taken last week show a vast majority of citizens saying the economy is either not improving for them or, by a large percentage, getting worse.
I don’t think politicians are much to blame for the mess. But if one wants to play the political blame game, there is more than enough to cover the state’s famous red clay. For Democrats, the bad news is that Barack Obama’s approval rating in the state has plummeted in recent weeks. For Republicans, the bad news is that they control both executive and legislative branches of government.
The Democrats in Georgia for years have been drifting too far to the left and thus cannot field a candidate capable of winning major office. And with that image, even strong moderates and conservatives like former Gov. Roy Barnes of Marietta have been unable to capture high office running as Democrats.
For Republicans, it is a different story. Their legislature has been bogged down in endless bills designed to micromanage everyone’s life in the state. If there has been a “hot” issue that seemed to press the public’s button, they have played to it, in spades.
While the state GOP seems to have eliminated a few of the leaders who knee-jerked every seemingly popular issue, they are now stuck with a government that they can hardly fund. Roads in the state lack proper signage and no new ones can really be built; businesses are lured into the state, but others close shop at the same time; and the state really doesn’t really have a motto or an ad campaign that even says, “Hey, we are here.” A recent Twitter survey showed Georgia is one of the five “saddest” states in the nation.
Georgia has a strong governor and legislature. But it needs something else.
All of this, of course, risks the ire of the Chamber of Commerce types who pat themselves on the back in every community in America. As we say in the South, “God Bless their souls.” But if they thought about it, they would instead start retuning their story rather than kicking at critics.
The state is now one of the leading sites in the nation for the production of movies and television series. And Atlanta is either the home or second home to virtually every hip-hop and urban music artist. Georgia’s flagship universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, have risen swiftly to become among the top public universities in the nation. And, contrary to the image many have from around the nation, the place is not only sophisticated but just plain cool. It has mountains, beaches and everything in between.
But I know when a place lacks cohesion, direction and fire in the belly. And by the way, that doesn’t get fixed by government leaders alone. It comes from the so-called civic leaders taking off their blinders, putting away their medals and trophies of self congratulations, rolling up their sleeves, and getting real about what they have going for them and what they need to do to make it better.
I firmly believe the overly referenced Scarlett O’Hara would likely say, soil in hand, “As God as my witness this state will never be poor, or lack energy, or let some of its leaders strut around like the ‘emperor with no clothes’ ever again.”
Georgia will come back. It just, as its famous native-Georgian singer, the late James Brown put it, needs “a hard roll and a cup of coffee” to wake up. The polls are that cup of coffee, and the mood of the public is the hard roll.
Matt Towery heads the polling firm InsiderAdvantage.