Who’s Got The Power?

Who runs Georgia government? A year ago, that was an easy question with an obvious answer: Gov. Roy Barnes, House Speaker Tom Murphy, House Majority Leader Larry Walker, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, Barnes aide Bobby Kahn, plus business leaders in Atlanta and Columbus.

Then zap. Those leaders vanished. Barnes and Murphy were defeated in elections. Walker was toppled in a futile bid to succeed Murphy. Republican senators stripped Democratic Lt. Gov. Taylor of his authority. Kahn went back into private business, and much of the Atlanta and Columbus commercial community fell out of favor.

So whom does that leave at the helm?

Gov. Sonny Perdue? Not me, he says. He tells reporters he has no intention of becoming “a beneficial dictator.” He wants the General Assembly to take a more active role in running the state. On paper, Georgia has one of the most powerful governors in the country. But Perdue has relaxed his grip on the levers of authority and, as a result, lost one battle after another in the 2003 legislative session.

The power once concentrated in the governor’s office has been diffused. A retired Bank of America executive, Jim Lientz, is Perdue’s chief operating officer, charged with the day-to-day business of running state government. Lientz lacks political experience, and his marching orders are to steer clear of politics – an impossible mission in trying to administer the government of the nation’s third fastest-growing state.

Eric Tanenblatt is Perdue’s chief of staff – the Bobby Kahn of the Sonny Perdue era. Tanenblatt, who led George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign in Georgia, has plenty of political experience. However, he must tiptoe through the peach blossoms to avoid colliding with Lientz. Besides, rumor persists that he will soon be returning to the Bush fold to help manage the president’s 2004 re-election bid.

Does such a muddle in the governor’s office leave it up to the Legislature to provide the new leaders of the Republican dreamland called New Georgia? If so, New Georgia may be headed for some old headaches. The last session of the General Assembly set a modern-day record for non-achievement, enacting fewer pieces of substantive legislation than any state assembly in memory.

It also was the first General Assembly since the 19th century to be divided along party lines. Democrats owned the House. Republicans ran the Senate – or did they? The 30 Republican senators fought among themselves on a variety of issues as fiercely as they ever battled their Democratic foes.

Still, political vacuums are as ephemeral as butterflies. In fact, Georgia may be on the verge of producing a new cast of leaders to guide the state for the next four or eight years.

When the legislative session ended in April, Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, the new speaker of the House, emerged as the dominant figure in the Gold Dome. Whether he can remain at the top is still to be seen.

Coleman bravely cast the deciding vote to try to end the state flag controversy, effectively killing a referendum on whether Georgians want to restore the Confederate battle emblem as the centerpiece of the official state banner.

The “flaggers” – activists favoring the return to the Rebel-X flag – have promised to recruit viable Republican opposition to Coleman in the 2004 elections. For the moment, however, the Coleman crowd rules the state House and, therefore, the General Assembly. Coleman’s main lieutenants – Reps. Jimmy Skipper of Americus, Tom Buck and Calvin Smyre, both of Columbus, Richard Royal of Camilla and Dubose Porter of Dublin – seem unlikely prospects for roles as fresh leaders. In fact, these graybeards, all veterans of the Tom Murphy regime, may be members of a vanishing breed – South Georgia Democrats.

Though Gov. Perdue tried to defeat Coleman as speaker, the Eastman lawmaker and his team ironically were more responsible than anyone else for the governor’s few triumphs in the last legislative session. They not only rescued him on the flag issue, they also greased passage of the following Perdue-backed measures:

  • A new predatory lending law that was friendlier to Georgia’s financial community (and less friendly to consumers).
  • A compromise state budget aimed at avoiding a special legislative session.
  • The governor’s education package that undid much of Gov. Barnes’ reform program.
  • An increase in the tobacco tax, the only surviving piece of the governor’s plan to raise taxes on a variety of items, including personal property.

While House Democrats exemplified harmony, Senate Republicans struck one discordant note after another. Yet some observers believe Georgia’s new generation of leaders may come from the ranks of the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson of Savannah is the de facto Republican ruler of the upper chamber, along with Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens of Canton. (Johnson and Stephens make up two of the three votes on the Committee on Assignments, which runs the Senate. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor is the third vote, but he is nearly always overruled.)

Johnson, an architect, has been mentioned as a First District congressional candidate, if Rep. Jack Kingston runs for the Senate next year. That would leave Stephens, a public-relations executive, as the prospective top dog in the Senate. The governor’s former floor leader was elected in June to the majority leadership post, replacing Sen. Tom Price of Roswell, who decided to run for the Sixth District congressional seat.

Though he labored long in the Democratic vineyards for Zell Miller, former congressman Ed Jenkins and others, Stephens became a Republican activist in 1994 and says he may have always been a member of the GOP at heart. “My first political involvement was a mock election for governor held at Morganton Elementary School in 1966, when I was 10 years old – the same year as the Bo Callaway versus Lester Maddox election,” Stephens recalls. “I wore ‘Go Bo’ buttons and played Bo Callaway. I had met Lester as he campaigned in Blue Ridge. He patted me on the head and that made me mad, so I played Bo in the mock election.”

A couple of years ago, Stephens considered running for lieutenant governor, then changed his mind. In his bid to become Senate majority leader, Stephens ran as underdog against Sen. Casey Cagle of Canton. With the help of the governor’s aides and part of the Republican establishment, Stephens finally prevailed. Pro-Cagle operatives unleashed an eleventh-hour barrage of information on Stephens’ personal money problems and campaign finances to try to unhorse him. But the blast backfired and Stephens won, with a big assist from Sen. Dan Lee, Perdue’s assistant floor leader. Stephens’ presence in the majority leader’s post will undoubtedly make life more comfortable for Perdue in the 2004 legislative session.

While the likes of Sen. Stephens and Rep. Coleman may put the most identifiable faces on the new cast of state political chiefs, the real shift of power may have accrued to the benefit of the invisible branch of state government – the lobbyists.

Most observers believe lobbyists, a decisive factor in every legislative battle, are now more influential than ever in the Georgia government. And the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, led by onetime Macon Mayor George Israel, may be first among equals in the lobbying lineup that includes utilities, banks, health-care interests, county and city governments, and others.

One other thing: The shifting sands in power may be new to Georgia because ours is the last Southern state to dump solidly Democratic rule in favor of a genuine two-party system. But our present traumas in leadership are old hat in Florida, Texas, Alabama and North Carolina, where insurgent Republicans took control long ago and immediately fell to fighting among themselves, which is certainly familiar ground for Georgia’s GOP.

Categories: Political Notes