Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Georgia's good-ol-boy network is NOT a meritocracy

“Hillary will do for gender relations what Obama did for race relations,” Randy Evans, a prominent lawyer and a Republican National Committee member from Georgia, predicted this week. "She will galvanize or divide us into groups and bring out some of the worst in us, rather than the best."

That's a pretty extraordinary statement. Apparently, when a black man is elected president and a backlash of racism erupts, in Evans' mind the person to blame isn't the racists who come crawling out of the gutter, it's the black man, because he clearly provoked it.

It was Obama's fault, for example, that so many lower-level Republican officials have been caught sharing racist memes via email during his two terms as president. The racist attempt to delegitimize our first black president through birtherism was also Obama's fault. And when Newt Gingrich, Evans' good buddy, told us that Obama was only pretending to be a normal American like the rest of us, that Obama was in fact exhibiting "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior," it wasn't Newt's fault. Obama made him say it.

Likewise, when a woman is about to become the first female president in our nation's history, the misogyny that her rise has already inspired from the He-Man Women Haters Club is somehow her fault. Apparently, the prospect of a female president following a black president is more than some tender male sensibilities can handle.

Such talk is even more amazing when you consider that even as Evans made that statement, his political party was in full-scale collapse under the stress of defending Donald Trump, a presidential nominee with a lifelong history of treating women as mere sexual chattel, a man who brags about groping women and who even says it's fine with him if other men publicly refer to his daughter as "a piece of ass". In the most recent development, beauty pageant participants are now coming forward to recount how Trump, as pageant owner, would burst unannounced into their dressing rooms while they were naked and then saunter through, examining the merchandise on display for him.

Given all that, it's no surprise that Trump is now drawing just 28 percent of the female vote, compared to 61 percent for Clinton, according to the latest Atlantic/PRRI poll. And if you don't think that there's a direct line connecting Evans' attitude, Trump's nomination and the GOP's abysmal standing with women, then you have not been paying attention.

In his remarks at the Atlanta Press Club, Evans went on to make an even more pernicious suggestion, implying that Clinton's election would hasten the "move to a gender-, race- and ethnicity-based division of the country" and away from a meritocracy, with the rewards that now accrue to individual merit being parceled out to those in favored groups instead. As the AJC's Greg Bluestein reported Evans' comments:

"I think a meritocracy is blind to gender, race, ethnicity. It’s based on results. When we look at how a player performs in a basketball game, we don’t look to see if it’s a man or woman, what their religion is, their race. We look at how many points they scored.”

We all want a meritocracy, a results-based system that gives no unfair advantage to people in certain groups. And of course, the hidden assumption in Evans' comment is that we already have something approaching such a system, and it's easy to see why he might want to think that way. He looks in the mirror and he sees a wealthy man who is a partner in the nation's largest law firm, who is an influential political player deeply embedded in the Georgia power structure. And if the current system elevated a person of such obvious intelligence, diligence and competence to a position of influence, what further proof of its meritocratic nature is needed?

But let's talk a little more about results. I've published these numbers before, but I'm going to do so again because they're so directly applicable to this discussion:

Georgia has 14 members of Congress and two U.S. senators. None of the 16 is a woman.

We have eight executive officers elected statewide, from governor through agriculture secretary and state school superintendent; none is a woman. Throw in the five Public Service Commissioners, who are also elected statewide, and again all are male.

That's a total of 33 statewide and federal offices. All 33 are held by men, leaving zero to be held by women. That could not happen if the gender playing field were equal, as Evans would like to pretend. In fact, it tells us with certainty that we already live in a system in which certain groups have significant advantages over other groups. But since Evans is a member of those favored groups, he has little incentive to recognize it.

Think of it this way. In an equal world, the odds of any individual office being held by a male would be 50/50. So having all 33 major offices in Georgia held by men would be like flipping a coin 33 times, and having it come up heads 33 times in a row. According to a coin-flip probability calculator, the odds of that happening naturally, with no outside forces influencing the outcome, are 1.16415 X 10 to the negative 10th power.

Or one out of 8.59 billion.

Another way to test whether the current system should be considered a meritocracy is to conduct a case study, and as it happens we have a perfect opportunity in Sam Olens, who as attorney general holds one of the 33 positions described above.

Olens began his political career as a county commission chairman in Cobb County, where he proved himself competent, and he's been a competent attorney general as well. However, while he once had dreams of running for governor or other higher office, the truth is that those options are pretty much closed to him at this point. So the system would like to find a convenient place to park him, and as luck would have it, such a place has suddenly opened up. Kennesaw State University, a 35,000-student institution in Cobb County, needs a new president, and the job will probably pay quite well. (KSU's previous president was paid more than $350,000, plus lucrative benefits.)

If we lived in the type of meritocracy described by Evans, state officials would conduct a national search to find the very best leader possible for KSU, and Olens would have to compete for that job against people from around the country who have training and decades of experience in university administration. Some of those candidates might be women; some might be people of color.  And in that kind of open competition, Olens is highly unlikely to emerge as the winner because with no training or experience in academia, he simply is not qualified for it.

The good news for Olens is that we don't live in that mythical meritocracy; we live in Georgia. And in Georgia, when a member of the good ol' boy network needs a cushy landing place after topping out in state politics, they usually find a spot for him. In this case, Olens is the only candidate being considered to lead KSU, and it doesn't take much to win a race in which only one person is allowed to enter.

And of course, if Olens resigns to take the Kennesaw job, he will create a vacancy in the office of attorney general, the state's highest-ranking legal and law-enforcement agency, and Gov. Nathan Deal will have to name a replacement.  The leading candidate to replace Olens appears to be Chris Carr, a longtime political operative who now heads the Georgia Department of Economic Development. If that happens, Georgia's perfect record of 33-0 will remain intact.

(UPDATE at 3:30 p.m.: Olens has indeed accepted the job of president at KSU; Carr is now Georgia's new attorney general.)

In a meritocracy, however, Carr is probably not the way that you would go.  He has spent most of his adult life in politics and has little experience practicing law; in fact his law license is listed as inactive by the State Bar of Georgia. But in an interview with Greg Land of the Fulton County Daily Report, Deal's personal lawyer defended the likely selection of both Olens and Carr.

"Between having been the Cobb County commission chairman and then being the attorney general during the years when Kennesaw [State] really grew and developed into a university, you couldn't design a much better fit," Deal's attorney said of Olens.

As to Carr, he "has experience in the election and public policy world, and in the private practice, big-law world," and thus "fills all the buckets."

The name of that attorney? That would be Randy Evans, the man worried about the destruction of our meritocracy at the hands of Hillary Clinton.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.