The year: 1983. The place: Chicago. At stake: the office of mayor of America’s second-largest city.

In the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, had defeated incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne. He also had beaten Richard M. Daley, son of the legendary “Boss” Richard J. Daley, who had held the mayor’s office for 21 years.

Harold Washington Credit: By US Federal Government

In the overwhelmingly Democratic city, the winner of the party’s primary was traditionally a shoo-in in the general election. Not so in 1983: Washington was Black, running to lead a city that had never had a Black mayor.

As the general election neared, Washington’s opponent, Republican Bernard Epton, adopted a campaign slogan that spread across Chicago like wildfire: “Before It’s Too Late.”

Chicagoans had no doubt what “Before It’s Too Late” meant.

It wasn’t an allusion to the perils posed by Washington’s platform. It was nakedly racial appeal aimed at tapping the fears of white Chicagoans and preventing the ascent to the city’s highest office of a Black man from the South Side.

Final shot of Epton campaign spot.

The fear-mongering didn’t work. Washington narrowly defeated Epton, becoming Chicago’s 51st mayor and changing the city’s political landscape forever.

Jump forward to 2022. The place: Georgia. At stake: the office of governor.

As Democrat Stacey Abrams faces off against Republican incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, hoping to become the first Black governor and the first woman chief executive in the state’s 234-year history, there are no campaign ads, placards or buttons proclaiming “Before It’s Too Late.”

But the political strategy of appealing to white grievances and fears about the future of the state under the leadership of a non-white person appears to be alive and well, as organizations that support Kemp and oppose Democrats make a last-minute push to rally white voters from beyond Atlanta to the polls.

Now airing in Augusta, Savannah, Albany, Columbus, and Macon markets, as well as in Tallahassee, Fla., near the Georgia border, is a radio and digital video ad warning white voters that the Biden administration is pursuing policies aimed at hurting them because of their race.

Screenshot from America First Legal ad.

The ad is sponsored by America First Legal, a foundation in Washington led by a former senior aide to President Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows. It doesn’t single out Abrams for condemnation, or Kemp for praise. It leaves little  doubt, however, which candidate and political party the organization favors:

“When did racism against white people become okay? Joe Biden put white people last in line for COVID relief funds, Kamala Harris said disaster aid should go to non-white citizens first, liberal politicians block access to medicine based on skin color. Progressive corporations, airlines and universities all openly discriminate against white Americans. Racism is always wrong. The left’s anti-white bigotry must stop. We are all entitled to equal treatment under law.”

The results of a poll released last week indicate there’s a receptive audience for such a pitch.

Nearly two-thirds of all Republicans —65%— say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual survey of American values. Some 60% of Coastal Georgia’s population is white, and some 31% are Black.

America First Legal didn’t reply to an email seeking comment about the commercial’s intended audience. 

‘Some gun-wielding Halloween slashers’

Two prominent Coastal Georgia Democrats, both Black women, say that while the ad may be the most brazen attempt to exploit racial resentments and fears to help Kemp and other Georgia Republicans prevail next week, it hasn’t been the only one during the midterm campaign.  

Edna Jackson
Edna Jackson

These Black political leaders say that the Kemp-Abrams campaign has been laced with appeals to white insecurity and fear through messaging on issues about crime, immigration and voting rights. The race has been as much about her core identity as the policies she’s promoting, they say. 

“Republicans are trying to stir up fears about her being Black, about being a woman, often without saying it,” says former Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson.

Some of the ads paint Abrams and other Democratic candidates “as if they’re some gun-wielding Halloween slashers. In some of the campaign ads, Black faces are darkened to make Blacks look more threatening. It’s very offensive,” says W. Renea Camper, chairwoman of the Liberty County Democratic Committee. She didn’t specify whether the ads were sponsored by candidates or outside groups.

Stump speeches by GOP candidates across Coastal Georgia have taken on an apocalyptic tone beyond the usual campaign rhetoric and bluster. Abrams has been described at local Republican Party meetings on Skidaway Island and at county party meetings as a threat to Georgia’s way of life, bent on transforming the state into the avatar of all they say is politically and culturally reprehensible in America: California.

That terminology risks inflaming existing fears and hostility, says Jackson, who currently represents District 165 in the Georgia House of Representatives.

“There are white people that are angry, and they’re being led by those people that are racist. They fear that if she wins, they’ll be left out,” she says.

The race and gender signaling is subtle but no less toxic in Kemp’s frequent invocation of his wife and children in campaign statements, ads, and speeches, Jackson and Camper say.

Where voters see the reference as an expression of affection and pride by a husband and father to his wife and children, Jackson and Camper also see something else. They see a pointed reminder to voters that Abrams — a 48-year-old single, Black woman — is a deviation from the norm, a “traditional” family.

“He talks all the time about ‘Marty and the girls and I.’ That’s cool — we’re all proud of our families,” says Camper. “But that’s definitely a dog whistle. It says, ‘I’m a family man. I have values that my opponent doesn’t have because she’s single and she’s a woman.’ ”

“We want to focus on differences between the candidates over policies and values, not on gender, race, or marital status,” she says. 

‘How can it be race? I’m backing Herschel’

Marolyn Overton is adamant that her opposition to Abrams has nothing to do with gender, much less with race.

“How can it be race? I’m backing Herschel [Walker],” says Overton, president of Ladies on the Right, a conservative organization in Chatham County.

Screenshot from America First Legal advertisement.

“It’s about the issues, what she stands for, and what she says she will do” if elected Georgia’s first Black and first woman governor.

At the same time, Overton’s no less insistent that the America First Legal ad’s call to end anti-white discrimination is a legitimate topic for public discussion in a constitutional order that protects freedom of speech, not a manipulative racist appeal. She doesn’t worry about the ad’s potential to incite anti-Black violence.

“If the whites wanted to rise up, they would have risen up against Black Lives Matter. If we wanted to fight something, right there is where we should have been,” she says. “But we couldn’t say anything because if a white person said, ‘white lives matter,’ that meant we were racist. So, we all shut up.”

This frustration, a rankling sense that her and her values have been unfairly muzzled, weaves through Overton’s remarks about the gubernatorial campaign.

“You couldn’t say, ‘White Lives Matter.’ Only Black lives mattered. And the people that started that organization did not do one thing to help Black lives. But it certainly discriminated against everyone else. We’ve had this discrimination problem going back and forth for years,” she said.

A majority-minority state

Dr. Charles Bullock

Charles Bullock doesn’t profess to be an expert about Harold Washington, Chicago politics, and the “Before It’s Too Late” mayoral election in 1983.

But in his numbers-don’t-lie fashion, the 80-year-old preeminent scholar of the politics of Georgia and the South is keenly aware of how profoundly the state is changing and what it may mean for older Republicans and conservatives such as Overton.

In 1983 TV commercials while running against Harold Washington, who aspired to be first Black Mayor of Chicago, Republican Bernard Epton asked, “Which of us can build and maintain a police department that helps people feel safe in their homes and secure on our streets?” Credit: Michael Beschloss via Twitter

While 92%-93% of the Republicans who voted in the recent primaries were white, the total number of registered voters overall in Georgia is around 52%, he said. Twenty years ago, the electorate was about 78% white. It’s now about 58%. Bulloch believes that Georgia will become a majority-minority state before the next official census. 

“The state is very different than say, what a 50-year-old person and anybody older than that would think of in terms of racial and ethnic composition,” says Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia.

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...