In his successful bid to overtake frontrunner Joyce Marie Griggs in the Democratic primary runoff to run against Rep. Buddy Carter this fall, Savannah attorney Wade Herring released an ad condemning Griggs’ position on abortion and guns and mustered a battalion of canvassers get his supporters out to vote.

Regardless of which policy distinction proved more decisive in Herring’s upset victory last Tuesday, it was race and gender — identity politics — that loomed most over Georgia’s District 1 U.S. House Democratic primary.

That’s the conclusion from interviews of Black voters, party officials and political operatives and activists in Coastal Georgia who spoke with The Current about the troubles that the Herring campaign encountered as it sought to gain traction in the Black community. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The support of the Black community and other people of color, as well as white progressives, is essential to any chance for Herring to pull off another upset in November, so whether he can fix those problems is crucial. If his stumbles during the primary are any indication, it won’t be easy.

“He has a Black community problem,” a Black woman deeply involved in Coastal Georgia politics said bluntly. 

“He doesn’t know how to reach and communicate with Blacks. He doesn’t know how to penetrate the community to get their votes because he’s not talking their language.”

‘Just another white male’

When the 63-year-old Herring announced his intention to run for Congress last July, he was following in some well-worn, if inglorious, footsteps: In the entire 233-year history of the U.S. House of Representatives, Coastal Georgia’s seat in the so-called people’s house has never been occupied by anyone other than a white male.

As they considered Herring’s candidacy, Coastal Georgia’s Black voters were acutely aware of that history.

“Unfortunately for Wade, he happens to be just another white male,” said a Chatham County official.

But there was the hoary, inescapable conventional wisdom to reckon with. In a district that is solidly red and where whites outnumber Blacks nearly two-to-one, only a white male stands a chance of luring moderate white Republican voters fed up with Carter and Donald Trump.

First District candidates for U.S. House Joyce Marie Griggs, Wade Herring, and Michelle Munroe appear at a forum on April 26, 2022.

First, however, Herring had to win the primary against Griggs, a 70-year-old decorated Army veteran and Michelle Munroe, the 52-year-old nurse, midwife, and former commander of Winn Army Community Hospital at Ft. Stewart in Hinesville.

That meant persuading enough Black Democrats, who dominated Democratic primary voting in 2020 by 58% to 32% for whites, that he wasn’t just “a face that might get Buddy Carter out,” as one Black voter put it. especially to Coastal Georgians beyond Savannah, where almost nothing was known about Herring except that he is a white man.

But to many Black voters, the conventional wisdom didn’t matter. Nor did Herring’s positions on issues.  What mattered was Herring’s race and gender and their yearning for political representation by someone whose skin tone was similar to theirs. 

Said one Black woman of other Black voters in the runup to last week’s runoff: “Right now, they almost have tunnel vision. They’re just asking, ‘Do we want another white male running for us?’”

A tin ear

To persuade Black voters that Herring  wasn’t just more of the same, his campaign won the endorsements of prominent Black politicians in Chatham County and Liberty County. Their names emerged from an internal poll aimed at identifying the most respected Black leaders in Coastal Georgia.

The list was led by former Savannah mayor Edna Jackson and included Dr. Otis Johnson, another ex-Savannah mayor; a former mayor of Hinesville, Jim Thomas; state representative and regional powerbroker, Al Williams; and former state representative Craig Gordon.

Screenshot from a TV ad for Wade Herring released just before May primary. The ad featured Black leaders from Coastal Georgia, including former Hinesville mayor, Jim Thomas.

To avoid accusations of racism, Herring also shunned negative campaigning. Political consultants, party officials, and community leaders told him repeatedly that he couldn’t risk being seen as a white man attacking a Black woman.

Still, his campaign at times seemed to have a tin ear to the Black community, according Black voters and government and party officials interviewed for this story, starting with the absence of any Black person on his field staff. 

Then there were Herring’s boasts about the size of his campaign war chest, which exceeded $750,000 to Griggs’ $24,000.

In today’s politics, such crowing is a near necessity, serving to illustrate the breadth and depth of a candidate’s support and helping him persuade donors in Atlanta and Washington of the viability of their candidacy. They also help to attract more campaign funds.

But talking about money among poor and working-class people — some of the very voters he was trying to woo — was arguably offensive, one party official said.

“When a white male comes out and says, ‘I’ve raised a quarter of a million dollars,’ it doesn’t resonate.”

‘There’s a divide there’

More significantly, Herring’s endorsement strategy failed to account for the divisions in Coastal Georgia’s Black community, and how younger generations of Black men and women “don’t subscribe to being told who to vote for by the ‘Old Guard’,” one prominent local Democrat said.

“Those leaders are very well-respected, but a lot of people still aren’t going to just vote because, you know, Edna Jackson said so. They want to hear from you themselves,” this person added.

“Those leaders are very well-respected, but a lot of people still aren’t going to just vote because, you know, Edna Jackson said so. They want to hear from you themselves.”

Local democratic leader

Black women, in particular, are undervalued by the “Old Guard,” especially older Black male politicians, according to one high-ranking party official in Coastal Georgia.

“There is really a divide there, and a struggle ahead,” this Black woman said. “There are still men and women here in the first congressional district that feel that women — even a person such as myself — may be capable and be a good leader but still have no place being in certain leadership roles.”

That situation won’t last. “Times are changing. Stacey’s changed things,” she said, alluding to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Again and again, those interviewed for this story used the words “authentic” and “genuine” to describe what they saw as lacking in Herring’s interactions with Black voters.

When urged by Democratic allies to open himself to more give-and-take when he campaigned among people of color, Herring simply cited his list of endorsers as proof of his connection to them, one Black official recalled. 

‘Least favorite task’

In an interview on Monday, Herring defended his relationship to the Black community. He described his pro bono legal work and cases for Black community organizations dating back decades.

Blacks are well-represented in his campaign, he said, starting with the campaign’s treasurer and extending to younger generations of Black notables beyond the “Old Guard” who have endorsed him, including Rep. Derek Mallow and two Chatham County commissioners, Tanya Milton and Aaron “Adot” Whitely.

Regarding his campaign’s frequent references to contributions, Herring described fundraising as his “least favorite task” as a first-time candidate for public office, saying he wished money didn’t play as large a role in politics.

But, he said, he has little choice but to raise money at a fast clip. Rep. Carter’s campaign war chest stands above $2 million. “I’ve got to be able to respond, and that’s just the reality. Believe me, I wish that was not true,” Herring said.

A different measuring stick

Like Herring, Griggs never escaped the lenses of race and gender through which many voters viewed their candidacies.

She was viewed as a “loud Black woman” running against the “quiet white man.” And while her often resounding pronouncements about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged in Coastal Georgia tended to be seen by foes and skeptics as the outbursts of an “angry Black woman,” her supporters saw them as an illustration of her “passion” for social justice.

iJoyce Griggs, center, with Marilyne Jackson and Rev. Alan Mainor at a Juneteenth celebration June 18 in Wells Park. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

Griggs’ supporters, both white and Black, applied a different measuring stick to her candidacy, insisting that racism and sexism could not be ignored when deciding how much weight to attach to her bans from practicing law in federal and state courts, and her losses in two previous bids for the First District congressional seat. Griggs herself encouraged that view, declaring that questions about her professional past were dated and rooted in racism in sexism, not as legitimate attempts to gauge her fitness to hold elected office.

That tended not to matter. Her supporters saw her as a symbol of defiance, endurance, and courage against a political system that has long discriminated against Blacks and other people of color who make up the Democratic Party base. While Herring was practicing law in a tony Savannah law firm, they noted, she was faithfully watering the grassroots up and down the coast.

Griggs did not return repeated texts and phone calls requesting comment for this story.

‘Who’s gonna talk to us?’

After losing to Griggs by 4,473 votes in the first round of the primary, Herring won by 4,959 votes in the second round. Only 46% of the voters who turned out in the first round — or 20,785 people — did so again in the second. How many were Black and other people of color isn’t yet clear.

Clearly, though, Herring will need the votes of Black Democrats to have any chance of success in November. That means drawing some lessons from the primary. He could do worse than to dwell on a question posed by one Black official at the end of a discussion about the significance of Griggs’ legal travails to her campaign. 

“I don’t think that disbarment is good. But when I see all the travesties that African Americans have suffered — a person for example, who has been in jail for 45 years and all of a sudden, a DNA sample says another person did it — this is the conversation in our community, not whether Griggs’ disbarment was right or wrong, true or false.

“All they’re asking is, ‘Who’s gonna talk to us?’”

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...