ATLANTA – Back when Republican Sonny Perdue was running for governor, he pounded Gov. Roy Barnes for changing Georgia's flag and promised to let voters decide whether to bring back the old banner dominated by the Confederate emblem.
But in the week since Perdue ousted the Democrat in a historic upset, he has sounded much less eager to take on the racially divisive issue that could cost Georgia millions in tourist dollars.
"My goal is to have this state heal, to be reconciled from a standpoint of bitter partisanship and the issues that would divide us,'' Perdue said during a victory tour. He said the referendum idea "is something we will look at with the leadership once the leadership gets in place in the House and Senate and make a decision on how we will resolve the issue.''
On the campaign trail, Perdue had promised to back a referendum that would allow Georgians to choose from the old banner, dominated by the red-and-blue Confederate battle cross, and the new one, with the gold seal of Georgia on a blue field and just a tiny image of the old flag near the bottom.
The promise was well-received among many rural, white Georgians. Analysts say those voters were the key for Perdue — the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 1872 — as he pulled off perhaps the nation's most stunning upset on Election Day.
If Perdue does not deliver, he could face the same kind of anger that Barnes drew from supporters of the old flag, who say the Confederate emblem is a tribute to Georgia's history.
"I'd be disappointed. I wouldn't feel like he kept his word to the people of Georgia,'' said retired police officer Terry Rumph, who attended a Perdue victory rally wearing a cap with a cloth emblem of the old flag.
Leaders of Georgia's black community and its businesses do not want a drawn-out fight that could cost the state conventions and sporting events, as happened in South Carolina in a dispute over the flying of a Confederate flag over the Statehouse.
"That will take us back to the dark days of racial polarization,'' said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat and veteran civil rights activist.
The new flag was pushed quickly through the Legislature last year by Barnes and a coalition of blacks, Democrats loyal to Barnes and suburban Republicans. Barnes surprised opponents by introducing the plan near the beginning of legislative session, lining up key supporters beforehand and telling everyone blacks would boycott the state if the change wasn't made.
After nearly two years, the flag issue died in the Atlanta area but not in rural Georgia. Supporters of the old flag dogged Barnes at every public event, waving hundreds of the old flags.
Perdue dominated Barnes in rural, white counties, where "Boot Barnes. Let Us Vote'' and "Change the governor, keep the flag,'' were popular on T-shirts, signs and bumper stickers. Perdue won 95 of the 96 counties that are more than 65 percent white. Four years ago, Barnes won 55 of those counties.
Perdue, a 55-year-old who runs a grain business after a detour into veterinary medicine, said anger over the issue was only a small reason he was able to defeat an opponent who outspent him 6-to-1.
"The people offended by the flag change were only a small constituency of the people offended by Roy Barnes' arrogant abuse of power,'' he said. "They represent a small piece.''
The Confederate emblem added to the Georgia flag in 1956 at the height of Southern segregationist defiance.
Many think Perdue's promise to reopen a divisive issue was bad politics.
"I think it was a big mistake. I think he just knocked the scab off a wound that's begun to heal,'' said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
Terry Jones, a 48-year-old black cab driver in Atlanta, said a referendum "would be a smack in the face'' and could cost him business from lost conventions and trade shows.
Republican legislative leaders like Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah profess confidence that a referendum can heal rather than divide "as long as the public is involved and there is open debate.''
"If the people sort of come together with a consensus through their elected officials and if we as legislators do our job, it will not be a divisive issue,'' he said.