Business Casual: The Good And The Silent

If I were a good, hard-working, committed public servant – say, a state legislator – who paid for my own meals, remained faithful to my spouse and was smart enough to make up my mind on important votes without benefit of free concert tickets or golf outings, I would be plenty ticked off. Because that is not the image the general public has of its lawmakers.

Rightly or wrongly – in most cases, wrongly – the public perception of the annual General Assembly session is that it is pretty much a 40-day-long party, occasionally interrupted by floor votes or photo ops.

As an elected lawmaker, I’d be good and mad if, while I was silently disapproving of excesses and abuses and actually working for my constituents, studying legislation or sitting through committee meetings, a highly visible few of my colleagues were lining up with their hands outstretched, in case any freebies came their way. And still others were engaging in behavior that was not merely inappropriate or foolish but actually compromised their ability to carry out their duties responsibly.

The committed public servants in Georgia – people who are attracted by what they see as an opportunity to do something helpful or even noble, to make things better – must have been truly disgusted at some of the shenanigans that have come to light in the last few months.

But I’m wondering if some of the good, hard-working legislators who were disturbed by what was going on at the statehouse now wish they had spoken up or spoken out more forcefully before things imploded late last year.

In a very short period of time, Glenn Rich-ardson was out as speaker – and as a representative – after his ex-wife accused him of having an affair with a lobbyist whose legislation he was championing, and Mark Burkhalter was in – but then he declared himself out. David Ralston was ultimately voted in by his colleagues.

After the Richardson resignation, there was much tsk-tsking about a culture of corruption and a lot of talk that “everybody” knew what was going on and many disapproved.

There was even some tendency to point the finger at attractive females employed as lobbyists as though they deserved all the blame, and the “just minding my own business” male legislators who were happy to ogle or flirt or whatever were the real victims.

I believe honorable elected officials at all levels of government are too often overshadowed by the power-hungry and the ethically challenged. I’m a great admirer of citizen-legislators, people who are willing to work hard, often behind the scenes, to accomplish something that will help the constituents they serve.

Surely you have to have a thick skin, a healthy ego and a good sense of timing to run for and hold public office – it would be hard to survive without them. To be effective, no doubt you have to be willing to compromise, to negotiate, to re-consider, to change your mind or admit that you were wrong. To a certain extent, you have to play the political game. You have to pick your battles and determine when to speak out and when to keep quiet. But at some point you have to step up to the plate.

There are good people in the legislature – including some I’ve voted for. I know some of them personally, others by their public statements and voting records. I respect and appreciate the good ones, those I agree with and those I don’t. I just wish we could have heard more from them before the scandals broke and the leadership changed – before it was safe to speak out.

I’m sure it was difficult to try to do their jobs while all sorts of questionable activities were going on, but I can’t help wondering if silent resignation was the best response.

Someone who actually did do something was David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), the new Speaker of the House, who challenged Richardson and tried to force a change in the House leadership in 2008. He was unsuccessful – he could not get the necessary votes from his fellow Republicans – and he was subsequently stripped of important committee assignments by a vengeful Richardson. Yet he was the one his House colleagues turned to when it was time to elect a new leader, and he’s the one wielding the power these days.

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