This is the interview Rob Redding conducting with Georgia's Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue on Wednesday Feb. 19, 2003. This conversation occurred weeks after Perdue was sworn in the first Republican in the state since Reconstruction, and in the middle of the states ongoing confederate flag issue.
Told you we had a special program for you! We have the Governor of the State of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, live in the studio. And before I bring Mr. Perdue back up, let me give him a proper introduction: Of course, he is the first Republican Governor in the State of Georgia, since 1872 – that’s a long time! And he beat someone that people thought was unbeatable! He beat the Governor – then Governor of the State of Georgia, the Democratic Governor, who we’ve had in the studio…Governor Roy Barnes! Seven to one, this gentleman, was outspent; and it was well publicized in the media. So he didn’t do it with money! Barnes was outspending him 7-to-1; of course, Perdue is a former state senator and Senate Democrat Leader; of course, elected a Democrat in 1990, he switched parties in 1998; was re-elected to the state senate that year. Before entering politics, he was a veterinarian and also developed a grain business with his brother-in-law, and expanded into trucking. I have the pleasure of introducing to you…the Governor of the State of Georgia…Mr. Perdue, again say hello to the people out there, to let them know that you’re actually in the studio here at WAOK!
Sonny Perdue: Rob, I’m right here with you! That was quite a standing ovation you’ve got at the top of the show!
Yeah, uh, thank you. It’s standard every hour! I want to get to…and I told you I have some candid questions…
Sonny Perdue: Yes!
And I want to get to those candid questions, before we get to the break; now, most of our listeners here learned about you – during…not just the “King Roy” commercials…
Sonny Perdue: Right…
That was a big point of contention in the media; but through the flag…
Sonny Perdue: Yes.
And I’ve heard a lot of things about you…is Sonny Perdue a racist…are you a racist?
Sonny Perdue: Absolutely not. Unequivocally no.
Okay. Have you ever been, or are you now, a member of the Ku Klux Klan?
Sonny Perdue: Ha-ha-ha…never have been; don’t plan to be; am not now!
Now, what…and how do you feel, when people ask you…those questions, or assume that you are, because of the flag? I guess this has kind of taken over your campaign, because from what I was told, and from what I have read, it wasn’t actually a campaign promise. It was something that was asked of you by an individual – is that correct?
Sonny Perdue: Rob, actually, it never was part of our campaign; frankly, it was asked by the media. At certain debates or forums, you may be asked about it with public questions –from the audience; but most of the time, when this issue came up, it uh…came from the media questions. And I always wondered why the media had so much interest in it, but it typically was a media question.
Were you surprised that they took your answer, and ran with it, the way they did when you said that you would support a referendum?
Sonny Perdue: Uh…I think it’s been mischaracterized…certainly in some circles, based on the premise of your questions; yes, what I said was – and I was on public record, obviously in the [State] Senate when this issue came up, and voted for an amendment, that would have sunset the current flag, and had a commission that would have created a new flag. When that was defeated, a referendum amendment came up, I voted for a referendum there, so I’ve been on public record on this issue, regarding a referendum.
Now…during your acceptance speech, and one of the reason’s why this is receiving so much attention is because of this flag issue – your acceptance speech…the night you beat Roy Barnes and the votes were tallied…
Sonny Perdue: Yeah…
You mentioned Martin Luther King. And then, during your inauguration address, you mentioned a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, as a matter of fact, you said, “Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as Georgia’s first Nobel Lauriat, who caused his State, his religion, and his nation to live up to our central founding premise – that all men are created equal.” Does that seem like a contradiction to you, when we are talking about the flag?
Sonny Perdue: No, not at all. I mean, that is a premise; that is a constitutional provision – one that I believe in; one that Dr. Martin Luther King had to demonstrate to his region: how you flesh that out! It’s a premise that I hold, and have held…and certainly believe to be correct!
So, you don’t believe that there is a contradiction between talking about tolerance, and then talking about a flag that was divisive back in the 1950s, and was put up in the State of Georgia, because of segregation?
Sonny Perdue: Uh, it’s still divisive; what I heard during the process, and what I found, frankly during polling Rob, was that, when you ask people from the occasion, to vote on the flag in a future election, it may come as a surprise to you or your listeners that 58% of African Americans said they wanted the opportunity to express their opinions on the flag; in America, that’s the way we resolve issues…and that’s simply what I’m calling for; I’m calling for racial reconciliation. We can take an uncomfortable family secret – over the differences of our cultures – come together and start communicating; or else we can hide it, and sweep it under the rug…and act like it never existed! This can be – this can be and should be – and what I’m calling for, is an opportunity for white Georgians and African Americans who are Georgia citizens, to come together – and talk to one another! That’s the way I grew up; talking to one another!
Speaking of…I guess, decisions, and this being a decision for the voters of Georgia…if you had the decision as a voter in Georgia – and you do – when you cast your ballot, how will you be voting?
Sonny Perdue: I’ll be voting my conscience at that period of time; and I may disclose that at some time in the future. We’re trying to get a referendum set up here, now; and I’m not going to disclose that. We allow in America, the freedom of liberty of privacy and the ballot box. As a leader, I think there is some expectation – at some point in time that I will lead on this issue. And I probably will do that. But I’m not going to disclose that at this time, because I think that helps to impugn the process of the real referendum.
Let’s switch gears for a minute here. And I’ve asked a lot of flag questions, but I also want to focus on why you ran in the first place…
Sonny Perdue: Okay, all right…
It seems like two important years in your life, are 1998 and 2001.
Sonny Perdue: Okay…
I say that because in 1998 you switched parties –
Sonny Perdue: Right.
You switched from Democratic to Republican; why did you do that?
Sonny Perdue: Because I had come to the conclusion – I had risen to the level of President Pro Temp in the Senate – that’s the highest level of member in the [State] Senate, that’s elected by both Democrats and Republicans of the body. Now, the Lieutenant Governor serves as the President of the Senate, and Pierre Howard was President of the Senate; but I had gone through as majority leader, after four years, and after six years of becoming President Pro Temp of the Senate…and I had found myself to be ineffective in changing the representation of Georgia. Being able to change the process of patronage, and politics as usual. And I felt that I could not change Georgia from the inside, rising to that level; so I changed parties.
Al Gore called you, the day or week you decided – then Vice President of the United States, and you didn’t take his phone call…
Sonny Perdue: Uh…I never got a phone call from Al Gore.
Never received a phone call from Al Gore?
Sonny Perdue: Never received a phone call from Al Gore – I would’ve taken a phone call from the Vice President of the United States, for heaven’s sakes! That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that! But, I never got a phone call from Al Gore.
That’s the information I have, that Al Gore called you, and asked you not to switch; during the time the Democrats thought you would be part of the many gains the Republicans would make; because this is a concern that they had for some time – that Republicans were making gains in the State of Georgia, and Al Gore called you; and you wouldn’t even take his phone call – not to switch parties.
Sonny Perdue: I never received a phone call from Al Gore. I met with Lt. Governor Howard at that time; interestingly enough, Rob, disappointingly to me, very few of my Democratic Senate colleagues called me in that area. And that was a disappointment to me – not that I wanted to be courted! I frankly, was in that period, my father was in the hospital…my father had a heart attack, and he was a life long Democrat. And it was a serious heart attack…at the age of 84. As I sat there, for 23 days with him in the hospital, that afforded me the opportunity to reflect on who I was; and what I valued as a person; and what I valued, for me, as a state. I came to the conclusion that I had to be true to the core values I held, and really call a truth in labeling issue. So, uh, that’s how I made my decision.
Did anyone from the White House call you – [Bill] Clinton, Hillary Clinton…and you didn’t take their phone call?
Sonny Perdue: I never heard of anyone from the White House trying to reach me in that period of time.
The reason why I asked that, is because in 2001 – you were gerrymandered out of your position – it seemed like it was from a point of vengeance from Democrats, that might have been upset that you might have switched parties…
Sonny Perdue: I certainly think that there is some evidence…if you look at what happened to the 18th District I represented, which had been a very compact district, consisting of some three counties in Georgia; that had been that way for a number of years; then I had started to represent nine counties – it went all the way up, from Kathleen, Georgia up to Covington; about a 100 miles long, sometimes only a few miles wide. That was the district that was given to me, and it is impossible to represent people in that kind of district.
How much do you think vengeance played, in terms of Democrats…doing that to your district, to try to get you out of office?
Sonny Perdue: Rob, I don’t really ascribe motives to other people; I think you have to look at the evidence, and see there – there were other districts treated just as badly, of people who didn’t switch parties. So, I’m not saying any motivation of vengeance drove them, I’m just saying the results of that district made it impossible for me to represent that district, the way it was drawn.
Because of that, do you feel like, maybe you ran against Barnes because you were mad at the Democrats? Or, are you upset with the Democrats, as to maybe why you switched parties and decided to run against Barnes?
Sonny Perdue: Rob, if you know me, I’m not a grudge holder. I don’t run for those kinds of reasons. I did run for Governor of Georgia because I thought what was done in redistricting was a damage to the democratic republic system of representative government – I made that very clear; that was one of the reasons that I did run for Governor, because I felt that the Democrats, in a partisan, political way – had done to the state, by carving it up in that way – made it very difficult for people’s voices to be heard, in the way they thought that representative government should be operated.
Now, I want to switch gears again, and ask a couple of other questions – there are a couple of hot-button issues that are out there. Of course, I’m an independent, and the first question I want to ask is outside the flag issue, and why you ran, folks out there within the independent movement are really concerned about ballot access…
Sonny Perdue: Yes…
As a matter of fact, out of committee comes a bill – HR355 – I believe, is the bill number; if it comes to your desk, and I’m not sure whether you’re familiar with it or not, but just in general ballot access for independents, would you support ballot access for independents out there in Georgia?
Sonny Perdue: I’m on record as being fairly liberal toward ballot access, actually. Frankly, what we found oftentimes, was that the Democratic majority didn’t want that ballot access; so I’m on record being fairly liberal toward that. I’m not familiar with the resolution of the bill you described, so I can’t comment on the specifics of it – nor will I comment on what I would sign, or what I wouldn’t sign – because of the dynamic of the legislative process. It may change, and people remember bill numbers…
It is HB355 actually…and it’s for fair ballot access requirements. And it comes out of governmental affairs committee, next Wednesday. Just ask you to keep your eye out for that one. When you say, “the Democratic majority”, are you talking about Democrats, or are you talking about the people of the state of Georgia?
Sonny Perdue: I’m talking about the Democratic majority within the legislature, within Georgia.
Okay. But you’re saying that you personally, have always said that you are for ballot access initiative.
Sonny Perdue: What I am saying is that there are differing, varying degrees to that. I have voted on that issue in the past, and have favored some of those access issues, yes.
So what things would stop you from signing it?
Sonny Perdue: That’s a hypothetical that you can’t address…you’ve got to take each issue on its merits; that’s why you try not to get in a situation of what you will sign, and what you wouldn’t.
Budget cuts are a big issue in the State of Georgia.
Sonny Perdue: Absolutely.
How many people are losing their jobs, and are there going to be some more [job cuts]?
Sonny Perdue: Well, there may very likely be more. Very few, so far, have lost their actual jobs – of those that are important. We’ve cut over 600 positions that were unfilled, Rob, and we may have to get some more…what I am trying to avoid is cutting a lot more in education, in child protection services, and health care. By what I am proposing with a user tax increase on tobacco and alcohol; and I think that will help us – if we don’t have that revenue to get back up to even where we were in 2001, then I think we will have to look at severe job cuts.
While we’re talking about the user tax, the “sin tax” as it’s called…are you comfortable with that name?
Sonny Perdue: No, I’m not.
Where did that name come from?
Sonny Perdue: Well, I don’t know…I hear it from the media, when they label it the sin tax. I’ve never called it the sin tax; I’ve referred to it in the context of quoting others, as the “sin tax”, but I think of it as a user fee on tobacco and alcohol. Legally, it’s an excise tax on properties…
So it won’t be called a sin tax?
Sonny Perdue: No, no, I don’t plan on referring to it as a sin tax at all. You know, one person’s sin is another person’s pleasure – I guess. You could think of gluttony as a sin, and you could have a tax on food being a gluttony tax.
Last question I have for you – and I always ask every politician that comes into the studio, that I interview – is reparations! It’s always an issue within the African American community, of whether government is ever going to address this. I know from state to state, we’ve seen initiatives; we’ve seen policies passed – Chicago has its own policy, in how it’s asking people that do business with it, to disclose [records of participation in slavery]…what is your stance on reparations, and where do you stand, in terms of initiatives that come through your department?
Sonny Perdue: Rob, I’ve been in the Senate since 1990; started actually in 1991…served for 11 years, been here in government…I’ve never had anyone ask me to consider reparations. I don’t believe that’s an issue – a kitchen table issue – for African Americans…I think it’s something people talk about, and like to beat the drum over, from an activist standpoint, to stir people…but I don’t think…I haven’t had African American families come to me, and ask, “Will you support reparations?”
Sonny Perdue: Yes; never have…
Okay, I understand….
Sonny Perdue: I’m sure we will on the radio today, ha-ha!
Well let me go back to the question, I guess…if you were faced with some policy that comes your way in terms of reparations, how do you anticipate dealing with that?
Sonny Perdue: Well, again – we’re dealing with hypothetical…
Yes it is…
Sonny Perdue: I don’t support reparations…clearly…I don’t think we can go back, and unwind the evils of the past – in that way! I’m a person of the present and the future – I want to help people today, and do something that will help them tomorrow. And I think we do that by providing equal opportunity, equal access, education, and building a better economy!
Let’s talk about education for a second…you have a new initiative that you’re bringing in, and you’re asking the legislature to do some things…could you elaborate?
Sonny Perdue: On education…we want student achievement! It’s called the S.T.A.R.S. program – it’s simply Students + Teachers + Achievement + Respect = Success. Georgia S.T.A.R.S. We want to make stars out of every one of our kids in school! We want to respect the teachers in the classroom; give them the authority to control the classroom; facilitate with the resources they need; getting the paperwork out of the way, and let them have face education time with our kids! And I’m convinced - I’ve been in schools – in Centennial Olympic Park here in the Atlanta system, I’ve been over in Southwest DeKalb in the middle school, I’ve been in Bibb County in Burk Elementary – you may know where that is…
I know where that is…
Sonny Perdue: Where that is absolutely happening! Schools are shining, because of the local leadership; and the relationship with the faculty, they’ve engaged the faculty with the parents; we can do this!