'More Than Jimmy Carter's Grandson': Jason Carter Carves His Niche

New senator becomes family's first elective official since grandfather.

May 24, 2010— -- When Jason Carter began campaigning for the Georgia state Senate, he had no experience as a public official. But politics was hardly a novel idea for the 34-year-old.

"I grew up campaigning for all kinds of things before I could walk," Carter joked.

Carter joined the long list of political dynasties this month and became the first in his family to win elective office since his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, left the White House three decades ago.

The young Carter doesn't shy away from discussing the family's influence on his career path. In fact, he cites President Carter and maternal grandfather Beverly Langford, the late former member of the Georgia legislator, as his role models.

But Carter, who won a May 11 special election in a landslide, clearly wants to distinguish himself and keep his family's name at length. His campaign website made little mention of his famous grandfather, who didn't even campaign for him until the last days of the campaign.

"I needed to be more than Jimmy Carter's grandson and I needed to be sure that I could introduce myself and my vision for this state in an effective way," said Carter, whose District 42 covers Decatur and a portion of Atlanta.

"Being Jimmy Carter's grandson, sometimes it just takes up a lot of the oxygen and it's a distraction really from the issues and the relationship that I want to have with my district," he added. "We made sure our campaign was about the future and what it is that we wanted to do and not about who we we're related to."

Former President Carter, 85, also began his political career as a state senator, serving two terms before being elected governor in 1971 and then president in 1976.

But the political landscape Jason Carter faces is considerably different from when his grandfather joined the state legislature nearly half a century ago. Carter, who will continue to work as a lawyer at Atlanta-based Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, will have his work cut out for him.

"It's not the same political climate Jimmy Carter faced in Georgia," said Trey Hood, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. "That was still a period in the South when almost everyone was a Democrat. ... You had a different sort of ideological stripes among Democrats, from conservatives to liberals."

Republicans have firmly controlled Georgia's state legislature since 2004, and while the parties are not as divided on issues as the U.S. Congress, it is still a challenge for Democrats to accomplish their goals without crossing party lines. There are 34 Republicans and 22 Democrats in the 56-member state Senate.

"Counter to some other states, the deep South is still trending Republican and probably will for the short term," Hood said. "It's not easy for any Democrat from whatever political family you're from to exert a lot of influence right now."

Jason Carter Becomes State Senator

While Carter may be attempting to break away from his grandfather's legacy, he can only be so immune to it.

Compared to some past presidents, Jimmy Carter has been relatively inactive in the state political scene, rarely endorsing candidates or getting involved in campaigns. But he has been an outspoken critic of Israel's policies regarding the Palestinians.

And his precarious relationship with the state's Jewish community became a thorny issue for Jason Carter, whose district contains a sizeable Jewish population. His predecessor, David Adelman, who left his post to become ambassador to Singapore, was also Jewish.

Carter, the son of Jimmy's and Rosalynn's eldest son, Jack, took special note in his campaign to reach out to Jewish communities.

"Ultimately, I spent a lot of time reaching out to the Jewish community in my district and to other communities to make sure that I could build trust between me, Jason Carter and those communities as best as I could and I think I did that," he said.

"I also spent time talking about Israel in particular and what a good state senator in the Georgia Senate can do in regard to Israel, which is not much but it's also not nothing."

Carter, who won the special election to replace Adelman, is guaranteed to keep the state Senate seat for at least the next two years. He is unopposed for the Democratic primary in July and the November race for that Senate seat is likely to be uncontested.

For now, the married father of two little boys said he wants to focus on the issues facing Georgia, specifically concerning education, transportation and water planning, and he has no political ambitions to go to Washington.

"My goal is to be a really good state senator," he said. "I have no interest in going to Washington. I don't want to move."

Carter denounced the political posturing by some states such as Arizona, which passed a controversial immigration law last month, but also said that in some arenas, such as education, states cannot wait for the federal government to fix the system.

Despite the heavy partisanship in the GOP-controlled state legislature, Carter is hopeful he can reach across the political aisle and find common ground with his Republican colleagues.

"Around my district, people are really frustrated with the system and ... the partisanship and the sort of the gridlock that seems to have taken over in Washington," he said. "I think Georgia has some of the same partisanship issues but I think that we should be able to find some common ground."