The death of former Gov. Carl Sanders is a reminder of how much the times and the state he ran during the 1960s have changed. As soon as he took office in 1963 at age 37, Sanders began the hard work of transforming Georgia from a sleepy backwater, held back by decades of county unit politics, into a leader of the New South. The accounts of Sanders’ life have rightly noted his moderate stance on racial issues during the turbulent civil rights period.
Even more impressive is how much Sanders was able to accomplish during a single term in office. The sheer amount of stuff he got done was astonishing.
Sanders expanded the money spent on education to build thousands of classrooms and hire thousands of teachers. He established minimum standards for public schools and launched the Governor's Honors Program to identify the state’s brightest students. Enrollment in the University System doubled as the state added community colleges in cities like Brunswick, Albany, Kennesaw, Dalton and Gainesville. Several of those “junior colleges” have since matured into four-year institutions. For nearly 40 years after Sanders left office, his successors tried to emulate him by being “education governors” who put more resources into teaching the next generation of Georgians. I was lucky enough to have a few conversations with Sanders late in his life, and whenever I asked him to sum up his time as governor, he would proudly note that he spent nearly 60 cents of every tax dollar on education.
He became governor at a time when an energetic young politician with a grand vision for the future could win the state’s highest office and make that vision a reality. It is different today—there doesn’t seem to be much demand for people who dream big. Voters are content to elect managers and administrators rather than leaders. In the current political environment, our elected officials dream small and accomplish less.
On the same day that Sanders’ death was reported, I walked over to the capitol to watch Johnny Isakson announce he would run for a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2016. At his kickoff rally, Isakson was introduced by Gov. Nathan Deal, who just won reelection to a second term at the age of 72. Isakson, who is looking a little worn around the edges these days, will turn 72 in the year he runs for that new term. Compare a picture of the young Gov. Sanders to the current holders of Georgia’s highest offices, and the contrast is startling.
Here’s another way to look at the differences in the two eras: Fifty years ago, Sanders expanded the state’s network of public colleges so that more students could have access to higher education. Today, the number of public colleges has been reduced from 35 to 31, and University System enrollment actually declined in 2012 and 2013. Fifty years ago, Sanders boosted education spending so much that Georgia could add 10,000 more teachers. More recently, state formula funding to local schools has been reduced by several billion dollars in “austerity cuts” and the number of teachers has declined by about 9,000.
They were different times, of course, with different circumstances. Sanders held almost total control over the legislature back then; governors today don’t have that leverage.
Sanders also did not have to deal with the aftermath of a great recession and subsequent economic slowdown that plagued Georgia’s last two governors. It’s difficult for any modern governor, no matter how good their intentions, to find the money for major new initiatives.
There may come a time when voters will elect someone like Carl Sanders who has the drive and ambition to get a lot of things done. That isn’t what people are looking for now— but perhaps one day it will be.