Several years ago the Georgia Democratic Party enacted rules to guarantee there would be racial and sexual diversity among its leaders.
Today, however, the Democratic Party finds itself in the position of holding an election for state chairman where only white males are eligible to run. That obviously sends out a very mixed message about diversity.
Democrats are in this fix because of the recent resignation of state chairman Mike Berlon. They have scheduled a meeting of the state committee for Aug. 17 to elect his replacement.
The party’s rules provide that the top two leadership positions, chairman and first vice chair, cannot be held by persons of the same race and gender.
Because the first vice chair, Nikema Williams, is a black woman, party rules mean that only white male candidates are eligible to run for state chairman.
When Williams distributed an email to state committee members announcing the upcoming election, she reminded them: "The Charter, therefore, restricts candidates in this special election by race. Thus, any white male Democrat is eligible to run in this special election."
The rules may have already knocked a female candidate out of the race. Former Gwinnett County legislator Mary Hodges Squires announced her candidacy for the position three weeks ago, but the diversity rules mean she would not be eligible to run.
It is an awkward situation for a party whose members often criticize Georgia Republicans for their lack of diversity.
Most of the Republican legislators in the General Assembly are white and the seven statewide constitutional officers are all white Republican males. Democrats are now being told they also have to vote for a white male.
Williams, who is serving as acting state chairman until a replacement is elected, says the diversity rules have been a positive accomplishment.
"It shows the progress that we’ve made in the South, particularly with the Democratic Party," she said. "I think we’ve come a long way and it’s something we should be proud of. I’m glad we’ve come to the point where minorities are well-represented."
"Do I think we should probably revisit our charter and bylaws?" she asked. "Yes. But that’s a process to be followed. These are the rules in place and we follow them."
Squires, the woman who wants to run for state chair, thinks the diversity issue will be worked out prior to the Aug. 17 election:
"I have every confidence that the gender interpretation matter will be handled by the party leadership so that the state committee members get the election they want and deserve," she said. "I am just as enthusiastic today about Democratic prospects for making huge strides in Georgia as I was when I decided to run for chair."
There would seem to be a simple solution here.
The Democratic Party could allow anyone who is interested in the position to run for the chairman’s job. If the winner turns out to be someone other than a white male, then Nikema Williams could offer to step down as first vice chair. That way, the rules would be upheld and Democrats could elect the best-qualified person for the chairman’s job, regardless of race or gender.
On the other side of the partisan aisle, some of the activists in Georgia’s Republican Party have been pushing an idea that is as questionable as the Democrats’ white-only requirement for state chairman.
It has been proposed that the GOP abandon its system of nominating candidates for public office by holding a primary election where everyone gets to vote. Instead, they would implement a system where candidates are nominated by party activists in local caucuses.
The proponents of this "Virginia Plan" argue that it would restore power to the grassroots and nullify the ability of the "party establishment," with its financial resources and influence, to determine who gets the nomination for public office.
In reality, the plan would ensure that party insiders decide Republican nominees rather than rank-and-file voters who participate in elections.
The Republican Party’s state committee discussed the idea during a recent meeting in Milledgeville but finally decided to reject it.
I think the Republicans displayed a lot of common sense in that decision. Let’s see if Democrats can do the same with their election for chairman.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.