ATLANTA — Thurbert Baker's gubernatorial campaign had just moved into its new rental home last week and was soaking in the atmosphere of worn carpet, bare walls and rooms empty except for desks and laptop computers.
"The roof doesn't leak," Baker ventured of the quintessential political campaign HQ: a bare-bones operation where, over the next seven weeks, faithful volunteers and hired political operatives will put in long hours fueled by adrenaline, Diet Coke and fast food.
Baker is an undefeated veteran of eight campaigns — five as a state representative from DeKalb County and three as state attorney general — and says he is confident. But this one is different. It's a big-time race and he's an underdog.
"This is going to be intense," he said, sitting in a sparse room that would do well for a police interrogation. "You have to take tired out of your vocabulary."
Baker knows he has his work cut out for him. When he announced his bid for governor in April 2009, the proven vote-getter was briefly the Democratic front-runner. Baker got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in the 2006 election. The fact that he is African-American seemed to bode well for him in the 2010 primary because about half the state's Democratic voters — maybe more — are black.
But then former Gov. Roy Barnes joined the field, relegating the six other Democratic candidates to a battle for second place and the chance to face him in a runoff. Endorsements of Barnes by former Atlanta mayors Andrew Young and Shirley Franklin left Baker shrugging.
"I don't know how productive this name-dropping game can be," he said. "People want to know what Thurbert Baker will do, not who your friends are. Barnes' entry hasn't changed my focus. I've run three times as attorney general. I'm not doing it any differently" with Barnes in the race.
As of March 31, the last campaign contribution reporting period, Baker was second in cash on hand among Democratic candidates with $624,000 to Barnes' $2.8 million. As of the start of the year, Baker had collected at least $68,000 from lobbyists in the previous four years, by far topping all other Democrats but behind Republican governor candidates John Oxendine and Eric Johnson.
As a state elected official, Baker was not able to raise money while the Legislature was in session through the end of April. He said he has been raising enough money to soon wage a television air campaign. Besides, Baker's backers say, money does not ensure victory. Barnes raised nearly $20 million in 2002 but was beaten by Sonny Perdue, then a relatively unknown state senator who raised just $3 million.
It's not like Baker doesn't have key supporters. DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown is backing the attorney general, saying he has known him for more than two decades and was impressed when watching then-state Rep. Baker push a bill through the Legislature.
"He enjoyed a tremendous amount of respect in both parties," Brown said. "The state Capitol is notorious for partisan politics. But he had relationships with everybody."
Baker's matter-of-fact, noncontroversial management style in office should not be confused with not knowing how to campaign, Brown said. "He's not a back-slapping, laugh-out-loud kind of guy," said Brown. "But he's a good politician, make no mistake about that."
As attorney general, Baker has largely avoided the limelight, but he did get national attention this year when he refused to sue the federal government over President Obama's health care legislation, angering Perdue and causing House Republicans to start an effort to impeach him. He also battled Perdue in 2003 when the two came down on different sides in a political redistricting case.
Baker's action this year was applauded by Democrats and attracted the kind of news coverage he surely enjoyed. But in an interview, Baker smiled and said the publicity "cuts both ways. It's not about the headlines or the 6 o'clock news. It's about getting your job done. I can't be concerned about the political winds of the state and do my job."
It's the same kind of answer he has given since 2007 when he was in the midst of the biggest controversy of his career — the Genarlow Wilson case. Wilson was imprisoned after being convicted of having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. The case became a national sensation, seen by many as an unfair abuse of prosecution, and a judge later ordered him freed.
The Wilson family celebration lasted just an hour before they learned Baker was appealing the case to the state Supreme Court. "I don't have the luxury of picking which cases to defend," Baker said then, as he says now.
The Supreme Court later voted 4-3 to release Wilson, and the case remains a sore spot with many in the African-American community who disagreed vehemently with Baker's decision. When asked about the governor's race, longtime state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a former civil rights leader, said he was working hard to get Barnes elected and didn't want to talk about Baker.
"Why don't you call the family of Genarlow Wilson?" Brooks suggested.
But while Baker may have turned off some in the black community, he has won over many other Georgians because of a hard-line approach on crime. He supports capital punishment and, as a floor leader for former Gov. Zell Miller in the 1990s, helped push the passage of the tough "two-strikes" legislation that mandated life sentences with no parole for the second conviction of a number of violent offenses.
But Baker said he doesn't just want to be a lock-'em-up candidate. He said he sees some problems in the wide disparity in sentences for similar crimes in different jurisdictions across the state and says that must be addressed.
"No question we have to make sure our law enforcement system is used fairly," he said toward the end of a 90-minute interview. "You have to figure a way that justice is the same across the state."
An interview session with Baker does not create many sound bites, but that may be an asset these days.
"If he had a lot of money, he might be the perfect candidate," said Matt Towery, a former Republican legislator who served with Baker and who now runs the polling firm, InsiderAdvantage. "He's bright and doesn't seem to be much the politician. And that helps this year."