Attorney General Thurbert Baker never had much chance of actually winning the Democratic primary for governor. It was obvious from the start that former governor Roy Barnes had more name recognition and would be able to raise far more money than any of the people qualifying to run against him.
Baker, DuBose Porter and David Poythress have distinguished resumes and honorable records of achievement in public office, but any realistic assessment of the race would conclude that they were embarking on a kamikaze mission against Barnes. And that’s how it played out on July 20, as Barnes piled up nearly two-thirds of the votes.
Baker’s chances of running any kind of competitive race in the Democratic primary were really killed by a decision he made more than three years ago in June 2007.
That was when he was in the middle of the legal farce known as the Genarlow Wilson case. Wilson was the Douglas County youth who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on an aggravated child molestation conviction stemming from a consensual act of oral sex he had as a 17-year-old teenager with a 15-year-old girl.
It was an outrageously unfair and disproportionate sentence that attracted national attention, in part because Wilson was a black teenager who’d been convicted through the efforts of an overly zealous white prosecutor. The media coverage of the Wilson affair reinforced the popular stereotype of a backwoods southern state where the white power structure was cracking the whip on its black citizens. (That racial stereotype would be further reinforced when white Congressman Lynn Westmoreland called Barack Obama “uppity.”)
Baker stumbled into this mess when a Superior Court judge in 2007 ordered Wilson to be freed from prison after he had served two years of his 10-year sentence. Baker opposed the judge’s decision and appealed the case to the Georgia Supreme Court – an action that ensured Wilson would remain behind bars.
Baker’s hard-nosed legal action was denounced by black leaders like Congressman John Lewis and civil rights activist Joe Lowery, who said he should drop the appeal and allow justice to be done.
“It is a shame,” Lewis said. “It is a disgrace. It is an embarrassment.”
Baker declined to drop the appeal and the Georgia Supreme Court later overruled him, holding that Wilson’s sentence amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordering his release from prison.
Baker always maintained he was just upholding the law, which was his duty as the state’s top legal official, but his insistence on pursuing the Wilson appeal cost him dearly among black voters. Look at the numbers from last Tuesday. Blacks comprise about half the voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Barnes received nearly 66 percent of the total vote, which suggests that he got at least 35 percent or more of the black vote – a vote that, under other circumstances, might have gone to the first African American ever to be elected attorney general in Georgia.
Baker made another mistake in an unrelated case years earlier that also had an impact on his political career.
In the fall of 2001, several members of the Georgia Board of Education, including Chairwoman Cathy Henson, asked state auditors to take a look at how state School Supt. Linda Schrenko was handling federal education funds.
It was eventually determined that Schrenko had diverted somewhere around $500,000 in federal money into her campaign for governor, where she lost to Sonny Perdue in the 2002 Republican primary. She used part of the money to pay for a face lift for herself.
Baker and his department were fully aware of the allegations of Schrenko’s misconduct. In December 2002, Baker’s media spokesman was quoted as saying that an investigation was ongoing and criminal charges were possible.
As far as I can tell, no indictment was ever sought by Baker’s office at the state level. Instead, the case was turned over to the feds and Schrenko was not indicted by a federal grand jury until November 2004, when she was nailed on 22 counts of money laundering and 18 other counts ranging from conspiracy to fraud. She eventually pleaded guilty in 2006 and was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
Schrenko’s case was one of the worst instances of public corruption in the state’s history. As Georgia’s top legal official, Baker would have been fully authorized to haul her before a grand jury and launch a criminal prosecution.
Schrenko was a criminal who was stealing taxpayer funds while serving in high public office. Had Baker pursued her prosecution in 2002, when his office knew about the allegations, it could have had a profound impact on that year’s race for governor, where Schrenko was one of the leading Republican candidates. It would have given Baker a well-deserved reputation as an attorney general who wasn’t afraid of going after corrupt elected officials who abuse the public trust.
In other words, if Baker had spent more time prosecuting Linda Schrenko and less time trying to keep Genarlow Wilson in prison, he might have done a little better in the Democratic primary for governor.