As early evening light streamed through stained-glass windows, Thurbert Baker faced the congregation of Temple Mickve Israel.
The state attorney general peered out under the soaring arches and vaulted ceilings of the Jewish house of worship on Monterey Square.
It was the fourth of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s five campaign stops that day in Chatham County.
Earlier, he’d lashed out at education budget cuts, criticized Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and touted his plan to create 100,000 new jobs.
But not at Mickve Israel.
Instead, Baker talked about the Jewish concept of Tikum Olam. He said it reflects a belief in community service and a desire “to leave the world a little better than we found it.”
He quoted an educator who once said, “Every person is born to do something unique, and if you don’t do it, it might not get done.”
Dr. Steven Gordon, congregation president, called it a “beautiful talk” that showed sensitivity to his audience.
Baker, a North Carolina native raised by a single mother, says Tikum Olam has special meaning for him.
“I think it’s why I am running for governor,” he said. “That’s why I got into politics.”
He did so in 1988, when he was elected to the state House.
Gov. Zell Miller soon named him floor leader — the point man for Miller’s legislative agenda.
He shepherded passage of the state lottery and HOPE scholarships, the end of sales tax on groceries, and life prison sentences for repeat violent felons.
Martin Cohen, Miller’s former chief of staff, said Baker succeeded because he could work with members of both parties.
That was the key to enacting Miller’s welfare reform package, Cohen said, because many Democrats opposed it, so it needed GOP votes to pass.
“Working well with Republicans will be vital for a Democratic governor,” Cohen said, “because they are likely to remain in control of the General Assembly.”
Miller later named Baker attorney general, and Baker was elected three times, outpolling all Georgia Democrats in 2006.
He has mostly kept a low profile, concentrating on issues such as consumer fraud.
There have been two big exceptions.
One involved Genarlow Wilson, imprisoned after being convicted of having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
Many black Georgians saw the case as an example of racial discrimination in sentencing. When a judge reversed the conviction, Baker stirred anger in 2007 by unsuccessfully appealing to the state Supreme Court.
He said he followed the law as he understood it.
“That’s the attorney general’s job,” he said. “I don’t have any option.”
Baker said the Supreme Court conceded he made the appropriate legal argument.
“The court, looking at evolving standards of decency, decided that they wanted to change ... essentially what the law was.”
This spring, Baker balked when Perdue urged him to join a multi-state lawsuit against the controversial new national health care law.
Baker said the lawsuit was “frivolous,” and joining it would waste taxpayers’ money.
That miffed conservatives, some of whom talked briefly about impeaching him.
But the Rev. Leonard Small, pastor of Litway Baptist Church in Savannah, praised Baker for standing up to Perdue.
“He would not be moved by expediency,” Small said.
Small said he sometimes disagrees with Baker, but respects the “reasoning and integrity” behind his decisions.
Baker’s campaign has two main thrusts.
The first: a series of proposals to create 100,000 new jobs. So far, he has called for employing 25,000 people in bio-technology and 5,000 in nursing.
Betting campaign on bingo?
The second — likely the most dramatic proposal by any candidate for governor — involves adding electronic bingo to the lottery.
Baker says that would raise up to $2 billion a year to shrink class sizes, extend the school year and make kindergarten mandatory.
But critics say bingo could divert money from lottery games that now fund HOPE scholarships.
Baker says other states’ experiences prove otherwise. He predicts people will come around, especially for a self-financing program that has emerged when the state is financially strapped.
“What I’m hearing from other candidates,” he said, “is how we stay where we are, but I’m talking about how we move to the future.”
Meanwhile, he’s in a desperate fight to keep his own political future alive after the July 20 primary.
In most surveys, he’s a distant second to former Gov. Roy Barnes, who has polled at least 63 percent in two recent ones.
For Baker’s campaign to survive, Barnes must be held below 50 percent in the primary and Baker must cling to the No. 2 spot. Then he and Barnes will vie in an Aug. 10 runoff.
Baker supporter Cohen notes the polls were taken before Baker began running ads on TV. Barnes has been on the air for almost a month.
Baker’s new ads tout the bingo proposal and outline his life story.
Political analyst Matt Towery, whose InsiderAdvantage Georgia group sponsored one of the polls, says Baker still might be able to force a runoff.
But his ads must saturate the state, especially the expensive Atlanta-area market, Towery said.
As of March 31, when the last campaign finance reporting period ended, Baker had $626,000 in the bank. He’ll likely need more than that, Towery said.
Meanwhile, Barnes had $2.8 million on hand and remains on the air.
Baker says he’s not worried.
“We’ll raise enough money to get our message out,” he said. “It won’t be as much as Barnes. But it will be enough. And we’re going to win.”