Charlie Harper: GOP's past must be its future

April 1, 2014 

Bo Callaway was laid to rest a couple of weeks ago in Pine Mountain, home to his family's namesake Callaway Gardens. To younger Georgians and those who have recently arrived, the Gardens are likely how they know the Callaway name. To those who were around several decades ago, he was a transformational figure in Georgia politics and the patriarch of the modern Republican Party.

In 1964, Callaway became the first Republican elected to Congress since reconstruction in Georgia. In 1966, he chose to run for governor instead of standing for re-election, winning a plurality of the vote. By law, the election was settled by the Georgia legislature in absence of a majority of votes. Callaway lost the legislative vote to Lester Maddox.

Callaway went on to become the Secretary of the Army under Presidents Nixon and Ford, owned and operated the Crested Butte Ski Resort, and became as much a part of the Colorado Republican Party as he was of Georgia's before returning home. And home to Bo Callaway was the gardens in Pine Mountain.

Callaway's death came during the final days of this year's legislative session, allowing for some official tributes. I regret that I was out of the House press gallery when Rep Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta began his, and will admit I had to do a double take when I heard him speaking glowing praises of the Georgia Republican and what he meant to him, his family, and the civil rights movement. Then, sadly, I had to remember that it was a party-line Democratic vote that installed Lester Maddox as governor, and the perception of the Republican Party with regards to minority outreach was very different back then.

Callaway's efforts in the civil justice arena didn't end when his bid for governor was redirected by the legislature to the segregationist candidate. As Secretary of the Army, he prioritized the promotion of minority officers, noting the great disparity between the percentage of minority enlisted troops to the number of those promoted to officer ranks.

On a personal note, it was the legislature's decision to award the election to Maddox that moved my family into the GOP's ranks. My grandmother talked often of how the family's representative voted for Maddox despite his district voting overwhelmingly for Callaway. She never forgot, and it angered her every time the subject was brought up even decades later.

The decades did pass. Callaway served as Gerald Ford's re-election campaign manager, ran for Senate in Colorado, and eventually took more of an advisory role to people like Newt Gingrich.

The decades passed for Georgia as well. It was 36 years between Callaway's election and when the first Republican governor got to occupy Georgia's governor's mansion. By that time, wholesale partisan realignment had come full circle, with African Americans generally voting with the party of Maddox, not the party of Callaway.

It would be easy to look back at the gap in time and missed opportunities and simply lament the current GOP's standing with minority voters. The GOP has allowed itself to lose a voting bloc that frankly, with its history, it should not have.

But Callaway was not a man to obsess over the past, missed opportunities, or unpleasant realities. He understood reality, but he looked forward. He found solutions. And he never gave up, especially when he knew what was right. His party should not either.

With the legislature done, I've had the opportunity to begin to move about Georgia again. I was honored to be invited to the 14th Congressional District Tea Party Leaders' Summit in Dalton on Saturday. When I arrived, the speaker before me, Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, was delivering a message of why minority outreach is crucial to the party's future. The message and messenger were well received.

Will the message take hold and spread? Realistically, party identifications are not changed overnight. Callaway's gubernatorial election was three years before I was born, giving just shy of five full decades to get from where we were to where we are.

Where will the parties be in five more decades? For the GOP, given population growth and demographic trends, the GOP won't matter if that message isn't received sooner rather than later.

Bo Callaway is now forever at home. It's time the Republican Party start looking to return to some of the best parts of its past and come home too.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government;

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