In 28 years in the General Assembly, DuBose Porter has never been afraid to buck the system — party be damned.
In 1992, Porter, a Democrat, made an inside-the-party run at unseating the much revered and sometimes feared speaker of the House, Tom Murphy of Bremen.
He lost the speaker’s race. But he wound up working his way back into good graces and power, only to be relegated to be the voice of the Democratic minority after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives five years ago.
“I’ve stood up against the wrong thing, whether it was my party or theirs,” Porter said, “and I survived it because it was for the right reasons.”
Porter, 56, is now running for governor in the Democratic primary on July 20, in large part, he says, because of how Republicans at the Capitol have cut education.
“I just decided enough was enough. It takes the power and will of the governor to make education the priority, and it’s got to be if Georgia is going to grow and prosper.”
In the Legislature, Porter chaired key education committees and proved to be a quick study who mastered the intricacies of complex legislation. As then-Gov. Zell Miller’s floor leader, he sponsored the HOPE scholarship bill that has paid college tuition for Georgia students and funded voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.
Last year, Porter popped into a third-grade classroom at Saxon Heights Elementary School when he saw a teacher giving a lesson on Thurgood Marshall. Porter, a longtime lawmaker, newspaper publisher and lawyer, sat down and observed before finally asking, “May I?”
With the teacher’s permission, he then recounted the life and times of the groundbreaking NAACP lawyer and first African-American to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“The students were enthralled,” school Principal Marie Hooks said, recalling Porter’s visit last year to the school in Dublin.
In 1998, Saxon Heights Elementary’s third-grade reading test scores were abysmal. Hooks, who had just been named principal, said she was sitting at her desk one day when Porter called and asked, “How can I help you?”
Hooks decided the school needed much more parental involvement, smaller classrooms and better technology. Porter helped the school achieve all those goals, and the reading scores improved dramatically, Hooks said. For the past nine years, it has been recognized as a Title I Distinguished School.
Porter said if Georgia’s schoolchildren can raise their third-grade reading scores, graduation rates should also rise correspondingly. “For the first time in a long time, we can move Georgia out of the bottom of education,” he said. “That’s my goal. And I’ve shown I know how to get it done.”
But winning the Democratic primary in a crowded field of seven candidates is a tall order for a rural lawmaker who doesn’t have near the name recognition of the front-runner, former Gov. Roy Barnes, or another opponent, Attorney General Thurbert Baker.
Barnes so far has lapped the Democrat field in fund-raising, allowing him to run TV ads. As of March 31, the last campaign contribution reporting date, Barnes had raised $2.8 million. Porter, who was prohibited from raising money during the recent General Assembly, had raised $379,427 and had $258,383 in cash on hand.
Porter says he will raise enough money to be competitive.
Tom Baxter of Insider Advantage, the Georgia-based opinion research firm, noted that an Insider Advantage/WSB-TV poll in late May showed Porter had nudged into second place in the Democratic gubernatorial field. Nonetheless, Porter was a distant second to Barnes.
Porter’s best-case scenario is to get into a runoff with Barnes, said Baxter, who praised Porter’s ability to connect with voters. “As a one-to-one campaigner, he may be as good as anybody in either primary.”
Porter refuses to concede anything.
“I’ll peak on July 20; Roy peaked 12 years ago,” Porter said. “Roy taught us eight years ago that it’s not all about money.”
After winning the governorship in 1998, Barnes, even though he raised $20 million, lost his re-election bid to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who raised just $3 million.
An unusual twist to this year’s primaries is that Porter’s wife, Carol, the general manager of the family’s newspaper chain, is running her own campaign for lieutenant governor.
Critics have said the political novice’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination is just a gimmick to help her husband, an accusation both Porters deny. If they are elected, they would be Georgia’s first husband-wife tandem to hold the top two political offices.
In the campaign, Porter touts his support for passenger rail service, improved transportation, job creation and water conservation and preservation. In 2003, he shepherded the public defender legislation through the House, and he now laments that a mechanism established to fund the system is not being fully utilized.
Porter challenged Murphy, who is now deceased, over Murphy’s control of a secret “slush fund” that lawmakers used to fund school projects in their home districts. Although he lost the 1992 contest with Murphy, the following year the General Assembly passed the Fair and Open Grants Act, which specified that all legislative grants must be spelled out in the budget act.
Sometimes, his challenges of the leadership have meant uncomfortable exchanges, particularly after the GOP assumed the majority in 2005 and marginalized Democrats found it nearly impossible to pass any legislation.
In one debate, Porter accused Republicans of gutting an ethics reform bill, saying it had been reduced from a choir robe to a G-string.
Republicans shot back that Democrats were hypocrites who never enacted serious ethics rules during the long reign at the Capitol. Then-House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) said Porter had pushed for limits on lobbyist-funded meals and then, hours later, sat down to a lobbyist-funded dinner that included crab cakes, steak and wine.
Despite the naysayers, Porter exudes confidence in his campaign. “I’m probably not real flashy, but I know how to get the job done,” he said.