Baker, Thurbert 1952–
Thurbert Baker 1952–
As the first African American attorney general of Georgia, Thurbert Baker had come a long way from a boyhood spent on a rural North Carolina farm. After building a successful legal career in Georgia, Baker was elected to Georgia’s state legislature and loyally worked his way up thorough the Democratic ranks in the state’s House of Representatives. Representing a new breed of black Southern politician, Baker built upon his solid professional credentials to forge biracial coalitions. He was on the radar screens of many political pundits as they tried to forecast which state officeholders would emerge as the leaders of the early twenty-first century.
Baker was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on December 16, 1952. He grew up on a farm and was raised by a single mother. The family suffered severe financial hardships and, at the age of eleven, Baker was sent to pick cotton and tobacco in nearby fields. His meager earnings of $1.50 a day were used to help support the family.“It [picking cotton] taught me the value of family [and] hard work, and motivated me to get an education so that one day I might do better,” he told the Florida Times Union.
Despite his financial difficulties, Baker was able to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1975. He soon enrolled at Atlanta’s prestigious Emory University Law School, and received his law degree in 1979. In the early 1980s Baker worked as a lawyer in and around Atlanta, litigating cases both at the federal level and in Georgia’s criminal and civil court systems. Along with his wife Catherine and their two daughters, he settled in suburban Atlanta’s DeKalb County.
In 1988, Baker entered the race for the 70th House District seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Running as a Democrat, he captured the seat by defeating the white incumbent. This triumph was especially impressive because the district at that time had a white majority. In 1990, Baker became active in the gubernatorial campaign of progressive Democrat Zell Miller. When Miller emerged victorious, Baker was rewarded with the post of assistant House floor leader. Two years later, he rose to the position of floor leader. As the chief point man for the governor’s legislative initiatives, Baker was in charge of bringing bills
At a Glance …
Born December 16, 1952, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina; Married to Catherine; children: Jocelyn, Chelsea. Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, B.A., 1975; Emory University, J.D., 1979. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Attorney general of Georgia; practiced law in Atlanta, early and middle 1980s; elected to Georgia House of Representatives, 70th House District, 1988; named assistant administration floor leader by Governor Zell Miller, 1990; promoted to administration floor leader, 1993; named to fill unexpired term as attorney general, 1997; elected to office of attorney general of Georgia, 1998—.
Memberships: Trustee, Ebenezer Baptist Church Board; DeKalb College Foundation Board; vice chairman, National Association of Attorneys General Conference on Violence Against Women; advisor, Harrell Center for the Study of Domestic Violence, University of South Florida.
Addresses; Office—Attorney General Law Department, 40 Capitol Sq. SW, Atlanta, GA 30334.
to the floor, twisting the arms of reluctant legislators, and generally bending the legislative machinery to the state administration’s will.
During his career in the state House, Baker played a key role in the passage of numerous pieces of legislation. This legislation included anti-drunk driving bills, a measure that reduced the lengthy series of appeals available to Death Row inmates, and a package of welfare reform measures. Baker’s leadership skills were evident during a vigorous fight to pass Miller’s proposal mandating a sentence of life in prison without parole for habitual criminals—the so-called “two strikes law.” During his campaign for attorney general, Baker told the Florida Times-Union, “We would not have ‘two strikes’ legislation in this state but for the blood and guts I left on the House floor.”
With this substantial record of accomplishment behind him, Baker emerged in 1997 as a leading candidate to succeed Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, who was stepping down to pursue the governorship. Although several prominent state Democrats were interested in the position, Governor Miller selected Baker for attorney general. “It proves what my mother told me at an early age,” Baker told the Times-Union. “This country is full of opportunity for those who prepare themselves, are willing to work hard and be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Upon taking office, Baker listed crackdowns on domestic violence, Medicaid fraud, and consumer fraud as his top three priorities as attorney general. He also gained recognition for bringing Georgia into line with other states who were suing the tobacco industry for alleged damages to public health. Under Baker’s predecessor, Georgia was one of the few states that had declined to take action. He initiated prosecution of fraudulent telemarketers operating in Georgia and, in early 1998, asked state lawmakers to impose minimum mandatory terms for beating a family member, with added penalties if the victim was age 65 or older.
This issue became a central point of contention during Baker’s election campaign in 1998 against Republican David Ralston. Although some political observers noted Baker’s long commitment to domestic-violence issues, they also pointed out that Baker displayed uncanny political instincts by choosing an issue that would resonate with Georgia’s white female voters, who were often a swing voting bloc within the state. Baker also raised eyebrows when he proposed denying parole for certain violent criminals, a controversial idea that was criticized by the state parole board. Baker went on to win the election by a narrow margin and became the first African American to be elected to statewide political office in Georgia. As of 1998, he was the only African American attorney general in the United States.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 21, 1998, p. A14; October 30, 1998, p. C3; November 4, 1998, p. D3.
Florida Times-Union, May 3, 1997, p. Al; November 11, 1997, p. Bl; January 12, 1998, p. A5; May 7, 1998, p. Bl.
Jet, June 2, 1997, p. 8.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Georgia state government web page at www.ganet.org/ago/gaagintro.html.
—James M. Manheim
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