Roy Barnes was sworn in as the eightieth governor of Georgia on January 11, 1999, and served until 2003. A Democratic state legislator for nearly twenty-five years, Barnes won the gubernatorial election with 53 percent of the statewide vote.
Roy E. Barnes was born on March 11, 1948, in Mableton, Cobb County. He was exposed to politics as a child as he listened to various conversations and commentaries at his family’s general store. In 1966 Barnes graduated from South Cobb High School and enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he majored in history and was a member of the debate team. He received his undergraduate degree in 1969. In 1970 he married Marie Dobbs, with whom he has three children.
Barnes graduated cum laude from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1972. While attending law school, Barnes received many accolades and honors. He was elected president of the student bar association and was named outstanding senior at the law school. He was also named in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. Admitted to the bar shortly after graduation, he returned to Cobb County to work in the district attorney’s office.
In 1974 Barnes won a state senate seat, and he served eight terms. After his second term he was named chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and also served as floor leader for Governor Joe Frank Harris.
After eight terms in the state senate and an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990 against Zell Miller, Barnes was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. During his tenure he became vice chair of the Judiciary Committee and was a member of the Rules Committee and the Banks and Banking Committee.
In 1998 Barnes made his second run for governor. He centered his campaign message on two vital themes: state education reform and health care reform. He also advocated campaign finance reform. His message resonated with voters, and though he was outspent in the campaign by his Republican opponent, Guy Millner, Barnes was elected. Pushing education reform, Barnes focused on lowering the number of students per classroom and on raising academic standards. He also supported legislation that guaranteed patients the right to choose their physicians and helped pass legislation that allowed insurance companies to be held liable for denying or delaying health care for individuals. Barnes successfully pushed for tax cuts on family farms and established a sales tax holiday for Georgia.
His tenure as governor was also marked by controversy over education reform and the redesign of the state flag, which, since 1956, had featured the Confederate battle emblem. Some of the state’s citizens became angry because the decision to change the flag design was not placed on a state referendum. Barnes used a more centralized approach to education and eliminated tenure for newly hired teachers. He also pushed through a controversial initiative to end social promotion by requiring students to pass a test before advancing to the next grade. Many educators strongly disagreed with Barnes’s criticisms of teaching methods and the education system as a whole.
In 2002 Barnes was defeated in his reelection bid by Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. After leaving office Barnes joined a legal aid group in Atlanta to lend his talents to indigent defense. In 2010 he ran once again for governor but lost to Republican Nathan Deal.