A blizzard, Two Wallaces’ and Georgia’s Flag: Surprises in Elections (Part 2 of 2)

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Greg Markley

By GREG MARKLEY

OPINION —

This is a follow-up to the April 8 column about changes in lives and election predictions that either wreck one’s plans or open new doors of opportunity. This is sometimes called the vicissitudes of time, relating to “circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.” (Dictionary.com)

Molly Ivins, the witty Texas columnist, was often asked by her colleagues to predict the winners of political contests. She never offered her own predictions, saying a scandal could erupt, or a candidate could even drop dead. Ivins said: “Anybody who thinks he or she can predict exactly what happens is a yellow-bellied fool.”

In 1979, a blizzard was the major contributor to Jane Byrne’s stunning a swath of political observers by winning the Democratic nomination for mayor of Chicago and later the general election. She jumped from Chicago’s commissioner of consumer sales to become the first woman elected mayor of a major U.S. city. The current mayor made both tactical errors and media missteps in trying to retain his job and keep Chicago’s Democratic Machine intact.

“The specter of Michael Bilandic … is like a ghost story elected officials and public planners tell each other — ‘plow the streets, or you’ll end up just like Mayor Bilandic,” wrote Whet Moser in “How the Blizzard of 1979 Cost the Election for Michael Bilandic” in Chicago Magazine (2011).

Here in Alabama, blizzards are uncommon, but politicians could be weakened as candidates if they mishandle an outbreak of tornadoes or other weather crises. In Chicago, Byrne won by 51-49%. But she herself was ousted from office in the Democratic primary of 1983, by 36-34%. Her successor, Harold Washington, became the first African American mayor of The Windy City.

Chicago political columnist Mike Royko wrote that, “I was trying to get a message across to Jane Byrne, but they (her top aides) didn’t get it at first. She suddenly had her issue, and she didn’t understand that. It was winter. Winter was going to beat the machine.”

In 1965, after Alabama Gov. George Wallace failed to eliminate the constitutional ban on more than one consecutive term, he searched for “someone to sit in” until he could run for governor again. He found that undeniably loyal person in his wife Lurleen. She was often timid and self-conscious. A newspaper editor saw her as “the most unlikely candidate imaginable.” Whether she could triumph, even with her husband’s political clout, was an open question.

Lurleen easily won the Democratic primary; beating a distinguished group with two former governors. She then faced charismatic one-term GOP representative Jim Martin in the general election. Lurleen was running not as “Mrs. George C. Wallace,” implying that Alabama might wind up effectively with two governors — a husband and wife.

“Martin said the South must ‘break away from the one-party system just as we broke away from a one-crop economy. Martin also vowed to make Alabama ‘first in opportunity, jobs and education,” historian Billy Hathorn wrote in 1994. Lurleen Wallace won 64-31%, becoming the first state’s first female governor. Sadly, she died of cancer after serving for only a year and a half.

In the 2002 Georgia governor’s race, Democrat Roy Barnes was expected to win a second term. Both Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball termed his contest against state senator Sonny Perdue as Likely Democratic. Barnes was successful with much legislation passed, but a somewhat hidden threat opposed to his reelection was spreading like kudzu.

Barnes was unpopular with many teachers because of certain changes he made. The Republican revolution in Georgia was at its apex after a gradual climb. But there is no denying the visceral reaction of white Georgians to his proposals for the Confederate flag.

“When the South went through integration and resistance to integration, there was always a Confederate flag being flown,” Barnes reflected in a 2015 Atlanta magazine profile. “So why should we have a Confederate Memorial Day, where we give state employees the day off? We don’t even declare a holiday recognizing the founding of Georgia, on February 12, 1733?”

Perdue defeated Barnes and became the first Republican to be elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction. In 2003, Barnes was awarded the prestigious Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library for his attempts at lowering the profile of the Confederate flag and its symbolism in spite of the costs to his political career.

This two-part series has highlighted a point known by most perceptive Americans: Political handicapping has limited usefulness. Factors that influence an election come suddenly and are not always seen even by the best pollsters and analysts. Media, especially broadcast media, should focus less on atmospherics and personalities and try something else: discussing real issues.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a Master’s in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 13 years.  gm.markley@charter.net            

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