Party Animals

After 130 years in the wilderness as the state’s minority political party, Georgia Republicans were obviously ready to enjoy being on top as they gained control of state government. But who would have thought they’d enjoy it so much?

Consider some of the incidents that have been reported since the GOP assumed majority control of the Legislature.

Rep. David Graves (R-Macon), who at the time chaired the committee that regulated the alcoholic beverage industry, was arrested twice on charges of driving under the influence in Cobb County.

Graves’ lawyer, the renowned William C. “Bubba” Head, at first tried to claim that Graves could not be prosecuted because of “legislative immunity,” but later dropped that particular line of defense. Graves eventually wound up pleading out to one of the charges and being found guilty on the other. He relinquished his chairmanship and did not run for reelection in 2006.

Earlier this year, a political enemy of House Speaker Glenn Richardson filed an ethics complaint accusing Richardson of having an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist during the 2006 legislative session.

“It’s typical Bobby Kahn,” Richardson said of the complaint, which was subsequently dismissed by a legislative review panel. Richardson added that the results of the 2006 election, where voters elected a GOP-controlled legislature, sent this message: “Georgians said to us, ‘We like what you’re doing, we want you to keep doing it.’ And we’ll keep doing it.”

Several months later, on the last night of the legislative session, Richardson hosted the party at an Atlanta bar that ended badly when one lobbyist allegedly hit another.

Less than a month after this year’s legislative session adjourned, Rep. Ben Harbin (R-Evans), the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was charged by Atlanta police with DUI after he clipped a telephone pole. The police report noted that during a roadside sobriety test, Harbin had “difficulty keeping his balance and he seemed slightly confused.”

The incident happened at 1 a.m. on a Sunday near a drinking establishment on Memorial Drive that is hundreds of miles from Harbin’s hometown, where he is a deacon in his church.

“I’d have a hard time explaining that to the folks back in my district,” said one of Harbin’s GOP colleagues.

Harbin, ironically, is one of the best-liked persons at the state capitol. He doesn’t forget old colleagues just because they no longer happen to be in elective office. He’s nice to Democrats and Republicans alike. He returns reporters’ phone calls and gives thoughtful answers to their questions.

One of Harbin’s staunchest defenders, Columbia County newsman Barry Paschal, wrote that Harbin is, by all accounts, a man of sterling character: “Just ask the folks at the Martinez-Evans Little League.”

But after an incident like a DUI arrest, all bets are off. Harbin’s misfortune had reporters and bloggers digging through Ethics Commission disclosure reports in search of information about dinner tabs paid by lobbyists.

As if to add insult to injury, Gov. Sonny Perdue took another whack at Harbin a couple of weeks after the incident when he cut $575,000 from the budget that Harbin had put in to pay the operating expenses of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in Augusta.

Drinking, fighting, misbehaving … why, they’re acting just like a bunch of Democrats. Clearly, these are people who have put the “party” in Republican Party.

It also has to be a bit embarrassing when you recall Speaker Richardson’s regular assurances that his party represents the “mainstream, common-sense values” of Georgia families.

“Georgians stand by their protection of the traditional family,” he said after Republicans first swept into power. “And we stand with them!”

What this all shows, of course, is that no political party has a monopoly on morality or mainstream values. It doesn’t matter if you have an “R” or a “D” after your name, we’re all prey to the weaknesses of the flesh.

You could call it politics. Or you could call it human nature.

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