By Tammy Joyner and Maria Saporta
The Ragin’ Cajun is back.
We last checked in with national political strategist James Carville in January when he did a post-mortem of the 2020 presidential election and January’s twin senate runoff races which hoisted Georgia into the national political spotlight.
In typical Carvillian fashion, the Georgia-born, Louisiana-raised lawyer gave his assessment of Georgia Republicans’ attempts to overhaul the state’s electoral system to weed out fraud and make the process more secure. Voting rights advocates say it’s nothing more than voter suppression and punishment for a record turnout of people of color. Carville, a Democrat, also talked about the political maelstrom corporate Georgia is facing over the controversial voting bills and what it needs to do. It isn’t the first time Carville has urged Georgia businesses to weigh in on voting matters. Last July, he issued a challenge to the state’s corporate heavyweights to ensure Georgia held fair and accurate elections in November.
Carville spent nearly an hour talking with Maria Saporta and Tammy Joyner in a funny, acerbic, sometimes salty conversation. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of what he had to say.
Joyner: How would you characterize the political atmosphere right now in Georgia, especially as it relates to the voting bills in the legislature? Many people see them as voter suppression bills.
Carville: I’m really struggling to challenge myself on this, I think Georgia’s the most exciting political state in the country. There’s more going on in Georgia than in any other state. Obviously, the political ground is shifting in Georgia but it’s also, symbolically, a really important state. So I think Georgia’s going to receive a lot of attention here in the coming years because it’s becoming unpredictable and that makes a great story, as you know.
Joyner: People are calling the voting bills introduced in Georgia the Jim Crow in a suit and tie legislation. What does that say for Georgia?
Carville: The thing that makes Georgia kind of unique is there’s a lot of corporate power in Georgia. The truth of the matter is for corporate marketing, the Democratic coalition is golden. The Republican coalition is not what the marketing people are overly interested in. I mean, they’re good for selling pillows, alright? Theirs is more of a pillow and pickup truck marketing thing. Some Democrats say, you know, we’ve got to like, really limit this corporate power. I’m like, wait a minute, maybe we need to harness it. They don’t want to be downwind of the coalition. Voting rights are such a simple issue. Sixty-four percent of the people in Florida voted to allow convicted felons the right to vote which tells me no one in Georgia thinks the waitress at the Waffle House or the baggage handler at Delta or the greeter at Home Depot shouldn’t be allowed to vote. That clearly tells me that. I think the politics is on our side.
Joyner: The politics is on our side?
Carville: Let me be clear. The politics is on the pro-voting rights side of this argument quite clearly. It is not a persuasive argument to people. Even some people that vote Republican say, “Well, we’ve got to change the voting laws because that’s the only way we can win the election.” That’s not a very uplifting message. Look, we’re not asking you, we’re not asking Waffle House to get in the middle of politics. I’m not asking you to support us on the minimum wage. We’re simply saying if you say you value your employees or associates or whatever they call people these days, then let them vote.
Saporta: When we spoke in January, you’ve said if Georgia tried to put bills that would restrict or suppress voting that it would make national news. How has your prediction turned out?
Carville: Ten out of 10. I can’t watch anything where I don’t hear anything about voter suppression laws in Georgia, I mean, look, if sunlight is the best disinfectant, then we’re the Sahara Desert right now. It’s become quite the story. What you do is pick your targets. So Georgia is the kind of focal point for every voting rights restrictive thing. A lot of that is because of Stacey Abrams. Don’t kid yourself, she’s really made voting rights central to the whole deal. But it’s a lot of people too. The Piedmont Driving Club crowd sees what’s coming and they’re not comfortable with it.
Joyner: Voting and Civil rights groups are really putting pressure on AFLAC, Delta, Coke, Southern Co., Home Depot, and UPS. These companies continue to say they want people to have access to vote but is that enough?
Carville: I don’t know if it helps. When I worked in Georgia, the railing around the state legislature, there were so many corporate lobbyists that you couldn’t have gotten on the floor. It was just crawling with people. They (businesses) have the right to add their own people to the Georgia Legislature. But they’re uncomfortable. They don’t want to get in the middle of this. But they’re being forced into it, which is a good thing. That was my intention, to not make them comfortable. You want to argue that you have some tax break or you want to argue that you want to change the workman’s comp law and whatever hundreds of different things that these big companies do, then let your people vote. And now, you know, companies think it’s good, they want to be into diversity. They want to be into everything and fairness. Good but keep the heat on. Bring the heat.
Joyner: So you’re saying the more uncomfortable, the more successful for…
Carville: The more that we frame it in terms of basic fairness, we can’t lose the argument. We won two to one in Florida. You’re not going to lose it in Georgia. The more attention that is brought to the problem, the better because we’re going to win the argument every time. It’s an argument you can’t lose. As I understand it, even some of the Republicans are not overly comfortable with this either. If I were to give a speech to the Walton County Republicans, I’d say, as opposed to stopping people from voting, why don’t we try to convince people to vote for us? What’s so faulty about our basic message, that the only way we can win an election is to stop even voting? If we had better skills at developing our message we would win elections? Why shouldn’t we embrace lower taxes and regulation and free enterprise and, you know, whatever they want to do? But they don’t want to make an argument for why they should be elected. They want to pass a law that prohibits people from voting against them and they’re not going to win that argument. They’re not going to win it.
Joyner: We’ve got about two weeks left in this legislative session in Georgia. Is it too late for Georgia businesses, especially those six targeted businesses, to show definitive opposition to these bills?
Carville: I don’t know. I’m not close enough that they have to, like, show definitive opposition. But if they call the Speaker of the House David Ralston and say, “Look, we don’t want this man. We have the House Caucus and the senate caucus, and we give y’all money.” This is not good for anybody. Let this shit go away. I’ve got Atlanta business people calling me every day. I don’t need this. I’m trying to come back from a pandemic. I’m trying to sell tickets. I’m trying to get people to fly through Atlanta, not through Charlotte, Dallas, I ain’t got time to fool with this so get off my back. So how they exercise their influence, they know that better than I do. The other thing is the symbolism of Georgia. I said this on TV — for white people, voting is just a natural part of our lives. We don’t stop and think about it. Shit, if you’re a black person, once they feel — and very correctly — that they have fought hard for this right, it’s going to be very unpleasant if people try to take it away from them. And it should be. Then you had this election in January, where we’ve been out here for 30 years voting and hadn’t won a popsicle. And guess what? We now have power. Now that we’ve got it, they want to take it away from us. Well, that’s not going to sit very well with you. If you’ve always had power, you take it for granted. If you struggle your whole life to acquire it, you treasure it.
Saporta: Have you been following the intramural politics of the Republicans here? You had the Lieutenant Governor actually step out of the chamber when they were voting on voting rights, and he’s a Republican. He said he just couldn’t be part of the process and that Republicans need to add voters not take away the right to vote, which, to me, is fascinating. You’re having a real division among the Republicans in Georgia on this very issue.
Carville: Obviously, I heard about it. I don’t know the lieutenant governor or anything about him. The Secretary of State became a national hero for counting votes. I mean, that is the most ministerial function. You know, how many secretaries of state count votes and how many elections we have? Well, we won. We lost. You go on with life. And the guy said, “I just counted votes.” That’s what you’re supposed to do and it became this entire flashpoint where people were giving him credit. It was remarkable to see.
Joyner: The federal bill HB 1, the For The People Act, was introduced to the Senate Wednesday. If it becomes law would it be the best route to resolving Georgia’s bills if they become law? Would it supersede the state?
Carville: You’re going to have to get a better lawyer than me. I think the Constitution gives Congress a big say in this. I’m not sure that even if House Bill One passed, that they couldn’t do something about statewide elections. I just don’t know. I’m not that schooled in this. But it would certainly be a big statement in federal elections.
Joyner: Taking the legal route a little further, are we looking at having to take this voting legislation issue to court which could take years?
Carville: I don’t know. But I know they’re feeling the heat right now.
Saporta: What about the political contributions and the whole pressure that after January 6, those companies were beginning to seem like they were going to really review who they were giving money to, and their whole political giving. Obviously, some of the biggest donors, you know of these individuals are the very companies that you talked about here in Georgia,
Carville: Yeah, look, it was kind of a watershed moment in many ways. And you know, everything is in context because January 5 was Georgia. Most of my experience with most of these companies is they want this to go away quietly in the corridors of power at The State Capitol. They don’t want to be in the middle of this fight. But the way modern America’s going, they have no choice. They would, you know, be much happier to go back to being Mr. Woodruff and picking up the phone and, you know, passing or killing any bill that you wanted to. They don’t live in that world anymore and I think they know it.
Joyner: So what is the inevitable outcome if their way of life, their way of doing business, their way of getting bills passed is changing? Is there a happy medium?
Carville: Well, the happy medium is to let people vote and voting rights proceeds as an issue, and the two parties fight it out. And they give contributions to both parties and they develop relationships and they hire, you know, top government relations people to do their business, but they really don’t want to be dragged in the middle of this fight is my experience.
Joyner: Have you seen anything like this before on an issue where pressure has been turned up on businesses? Businesses were quite vocal on the religious freedom issue and others.
Carville: You get a lot of this in Indiana, you know, Michigan, you know, when Former Vice President Mike Pence was governor, they did this anti-trans stuff, and the chamber of commerce came out of the woodwork. You certainly had a lot of this in North Carolina. These are not winning issues for business. They don’t want them. Right, if they don’t want this fight, But what people of my political persuasion need to do is say, “Hey, you don’t have the luxury of sitting this out.” That’s why I started this because I had some familiarity with them. I didn’t do this to make them comfortable.
Saporta: You made a point and it really hit home. When you look at the personalities that have come out of Georgia that are being part of this conversation. I mean, the national voting rights bill, they say the late Congressman John Lewis, the changes in demographics, in the voting profile of Georgians, they say activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. You look at Senators Raphael Warnock, John Ossoff. It’s fascinating, these Georgians who are really making a national imprint.
Carville: Georgia’s just such a symbolic place. It was really critical. You know, the United States won the Civil War on September the first,1864. It was over once the first president of LSU marched into Atlanta. And you know Gone With The Wind. I mean every piece of symbolism that you can think of, much of it comes out of the new South. It was The City Too Busy To Hate. It was the Pickwick ax handle or whatever craziness they had. It was John Lewis. It was everything that you can think of in the symbolism of Georgia. It is more significant than any other southern state probably as much as all but a few national states. And per capita, you know, the number of Fortune 500 corporations headquartered in Georgia is quite hot.
Joyner: if you were head of Delta or Coke or any of the six targeted companies right now, what would your strategy be at this point?
Carville: They don’t like this or they don’t want it. They traditionally have any number of issues that they deal with. Right? The president of Delta and the Delta board do not want to be drug into this. But we’re dragging them into it. Just let people vote, man. We’re not asking you to be for anything different. Just let people vote.
Joyner: How much is the American Legislative Exchange Council behind the national wave of anti-voting bills?
Carville: Oh God like you wouldn’t believe. I mean they write legislation. After this guy from Arizona, came out and Trump said, “Well, if everybody votes, we’re gonna lose.” It’s like (Sen.) Ron Johnson said, “Well, I wasn’t scared because they were White.” They can’t stop confessing. It’s like a lawyer who’s got a client up there (on the stand) “Well quit confessing man. Shit.” They are chronic confessors.
Saporta: Let me push back on something you said, James. I grew up in Georgia. And if it had not been for the business community in the 60s, Atlanta would have been just like any other southern town. There was a very progressive business community that pushed, you know, integration. It was an enlightened business community. Are you saying that that has changed or that we need to go back to the symbolism of what it was like to have a progressive business community?
Carville: I’m not a scholar of, you know, the civil rights movement in companies in Georgia, but I do know that they promoted themselves and Atlanta promoted itself as The City too Busy to Hate.
Saporta: It was good business to be for integration.
Carville: Or it’s good business to have people think you are for integration. I didn’t live there but that was certainly part of corporate. What these companies care about more than anything else, most people don’t realize this, is their ability to recruit talent. That’s an important part of their image. It’s part of the whole component. I don’t want to get too nostalgic about it but you know, they tend to act in their own interests and their own interest is not to get drug into limiting the right to vote or racial politics. They don’t want that. It is not their interest.
Joyner: What’s the one takeaway from all of what’s happened in the last six months or so?
Carville: I think the Georgia Senate race is going to be studied by political scientists and historians a lot because the turnout was staggeringly high. All of the quants in Georgia, would say “Well, if you get three million votes…the vote was so high, it was not even in anybody’s calculation.” That it could be that high. And the story of November 3 was you had less racial polarization and more educational polarization. It started on January 5. You actually had a little more racial polarization. In some of the North Fulton areas Democrats didn’t run as, you know, they ran good, but it wasn’t, you know,. Early in the night, people called me saying, “Oh, shit, you know, we didn’t do,” but then we started looking at the totals and we did do a little bit better, slightly in nonmetro Atlanta and we had a fabulous turnout among Blacks in nonmetro Atlanta which I think was by design, and I think that — I have no proof of it — but it has something to do with the attack on the black church. It was big. I mean you can’t underestimate how historic January 5 was.
Saporta: I loved what you said before Sen. Jon Ossoff would not have won without Sen. Raphael Warnock and Warnock would not have won without Ossoff.
Carville: None of them would have won without Kelly Loeffler, who could have been the single worst senate candidate I ever seen in my life.
Joyner: How likely is a boycott of these businesses and would a boycott work?
Carville: It would likely have to be highly targeted. Boycotts have seldom worked for extended periods of time. They have to be really highly sought out and I think Delta certainly, wants to have a good image of people flying, etc. But what they’re really worried about is recruiting people. And if somebody says I don’t want to work there and they write code or they do sophisticated analysis, This is just some of the stuff the type of people they need to work for them. I don’t think so much about boycotting but if they’re a company where talented young people have some trepidation about working there, they don’t want that. They really fight for their workforce. That’s a very underappreciated thing about corporate America. I mean, in Texas, that’s all companies worry about. They’re not worried about somebody not driving a car, they’re worried about some 24-year-old summa cum laude Hispanic female from Texas A&M who says “I don’t want to touch this company.” That’s just something I’ve learned over a life that is what really scares them as much as anything.
Joyner: Thank you very much.
Saporta: James, always a pleasure.
Carville: It’s always fun causing some trouble with you. You know, I always like to do that.
(Header: National Political Strategist James Carville during a March 17, 2021 conversation with Maria Saporta and Tammy Joyner. Photo by Maria Saporta.)