Brad Bailey, GPB, January 3, 2021
“We didn’t just show up; we showed out — and Georgia shocked the world.”
So said Georgia state Rep. Winfred Dukes of the November election during a December campaign speech in Albany for U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff.
Although Atlanta may be the state’s population center, historically it’s the voters of rural Georgia who decide the winner of statewide elections. Dukes, a Democrat who represents the state’s District 154, is keenly aware of this, and is highlighting ways to bring more political attention to southwest Georgia and its proverbial “Black Belt.”
Dukes’ message reflects the attitude of rural Democrats statewide: Atlanta and its suburbs played a huge role, but so did we.
The term Black Belt, popularized by early 20th-century civil rights activist Booker T. Washington, stands for an 11-state area where a large majority of Black people live in the South. In Georgia, these predominantly rural counties where African Americans comprise 40 percent of the population in a wide swath of the state’s central and southern regions.
On election night, it was the votes of Albany and the surrounding Black Belt, in which President-elect Joe Biden took nearly 70% of the vote, that contributed to Biden’s narrow win over President Donald Trump in Georgia’s final vote tally.
As crucial as these votes were in the general election, it just may come down to these counties again in the runoff election on Jan. 5. Ossoff faces incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, while the Rev. Raphael Warnock is challenging GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
The election will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Dukes represents a district stretching from Albany southwest to the Alabama border. Many of Dukes’ constituents live in rural, predominantly African American areas surrounding Albany. Although special elections generally have a significantly lower turnout than general elections, Dukes believes many more votes will be needed to win this unique election.
“In Albany, we need a 75% turnout,” Dukes said. “That means you got to go and get your friends, your neighbors, your children, and everybody who you know, to come forth and participate in this election because this is one of the most important elections in our lifetime. And I know you can do it, because you’ve done it before.”
Many residents feel that the rural counties south of Macon have been overlooked by the national Democratic establishment, and that in order to secure Georgia’s political future, attention must be paid to their concerns. Georgia is a bellwether for formerly “red” states nationwide that are undergoing seismic demographic shifts, skewing toward a younger, more diverse electorate. In many ways, these rural Georgia Black voters are a “sleeping giant” and could affect Georgia’s political stances for decades.
Although Atlanta has had a predominantly African American power structure since the 1970s, there has never been an African American governor or senator in Georgia’s history. Notable runs for statewide posts were Andrew Young and more recently, Stacey Abrams — and now Warnock.
Historically, it has been the power of votes outside of Atlanta that have decided state elections due to consistently high turnout from conservative and predominantly white, evangelical voters.
But the November general election changed everything, with the diverse voters around Atlanta and the Black rural voters jolting the political establishment to hand Biden a victory, the first time the state has voted for a Democratic president since 1992.
Dukes predicted the state would turn blue back in 2001, during the redistricting process. “What we saw, that by 2020, Georgia was going to turn blue simply because of migration,” he said. “People coming in with different ideas. We are right on target on what we predicted in 2001, based on immigration patterns of people who were coming to Georgia.”
Albany gained the attention of the nation when it was hit hard early in the pandemic by COVID-19. At one point, the area had the fourth-highest per capita death rate from COVID-19 in the world. The city has a poverty rate of 32.3% combined with other challenges of joblessness, homelessness and unemployment.
It is in this environment that Democrats are hoping to gain significant turnout.
“It’s so much tragedy Albany went through for the last eight years, with two floods and two hurricanes,” Florence said. “We lost about six metro [companies] that left Albany in the last eight years. So that left Albany in a hurting situation when you lose companies. Those companies paid max wages, and when they left, they kind of dried up a lot of our major businesses.”
Abrams opened her 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Albany, saying that there’s a symbiotic relationship between these regions and the capital.
“Atlanta cannot live without Albany, and Albany cannot live without the investments that come from Atlanta,” Abrams said in the city in 2017. “We need to talk to those forgotten voters, the ones who are rarely talked about. I am running for governor because we need a governor who comes from a town like Albany. Where we begin does not dictate what we become.”