Goodbye To All That

The Capitol building stands tall, the gold leaf on the dome shines brightly, the statue of Tom Watson still shakes an angry fist at the Georgia sky. From the outside, everything looks normal at our seat of state government. On the inside, however, everything is different.

A new crowd has taken over as Republicans, still celebrating their victories in the general election, hold a majority of the seats in the House and Senate.

A long era of Democratic control has come to an end, and with it the passing of some of the craziest characters in Georgia politics. You couldn’t always vouch for it as the kind of government taught in political science classes, but when the Democrats were in charge and the General Assembly was in session you could count on them for some of the best entertainment in town.

It was in the House chamber, during an emotional debate on reinstating capital punishment, that you could see such sights as Rep. Vinson Wall of Lawrenceville illustrate his support for the electric chair by pulling a pistol out of his coat pocket and waving it at his fellow legislators – who were understandably a little nervous.

Across the rotunda, you could watch Sen. Jimmy Paulk of Fitzgerald, who was fighting an attempt to outlaw the use of the pesticide Mirex, demonstrate to his Senate colleagues how harmless the stuff was by eating a cereal bowl full of it.

You could also see Sen. Roscoe Dean, reading earnestly if a bit literally from a speech written for him by Sen. Bobby Rowan, come to a key passage in his discourse and proclaim eloquently from the well of the Senate: “Now, tell a joke!”

For nearly 30 years you could thrill to the spectacle of House Speaker Tom Murphy slamming down his gavel and roaring at Republican lawmakers who got crossways with him: “Mr. Kaye, I’ve had just about a belly-full of you. If you don’t shut up, I’ll have you ejected from this chamber!”

And, of course, there was the most unforgettable character of them all, the one who broke the mold: Sen. Culver Kidd of Milledgeville. The silver-haired Kidd who once walked on to the floor of the Senate wearing a flowing white toga. The Kidd who, after a long liquid lunch, staggered to his desk one afternoon and started haranguing Lt. Gov. Zell Miller. “Senator,” Miller said with some exasperation, “I am bending over backwards to be fair to you, just as you are leaning over sideways to talk to me.”

The Kidd who went to his final resting place, legend has it, with a bottle of Crown Royal placed snugly in his coffin.

I miss them. I’ll miss them all.

Although they were crude and colorful, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as a hard-drinking, profane bunch of scoundrels. (Well, OK, maybe you could dismiss some of them.) For all of their faults, Georgia did prosper as a fast-growing, relatively progressive state during those years of Democratic rule.

When USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon was writing a long article last year on the massive financial problems plaguing the state of California, he used Georgia as an example of a state government that had been guided by prudent, conservative fiscal standards. An analysis by the newspaper concluded that “Georgia is an A+ student in managing its money compared with other states.”

Democrats like Speaker Murphy and Gov. Joe Frank Harris and Appropriations Chairman Terry Coleman kept a fairly tight grip on the public purse.

Yes, there was some pork-barrel spending – show me a single government where there hasn’t been – but the old crowd managed to provide the services that taxpayers needed without spending Georgia deeply into debt like a California. They must have been doing a few things right.

All of that doesn’t matter now. The Democrats’ time has passed. This is a sober, more serious group of Republicans who are going to do it all differently. Who knows? They may wind up running things a lot better.

But it won’t be nearly as much fun to watch.

Tom Crawford, editor of the news service, covers politics for Georgia Trend.

Categories: Political Notes