The Last Of His Kind

Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin is the grand old man of Georgia politics. He’s the only one still in office from the generation of Democrats who came to power in the early 1960s and essentially ran the state for the next four decades.

In recent years, those few remaining old-timers have been moving on or dying out. House Speaker Tom Murphy lost his re-election race. Bill Lee, Hugh Gillis, Jack Connell and Terrell Starr retired. Marcus Collins was felled by a stroke.

That leaves Irvin as the last of the breed, a man who was first elected to the Habersham County school board and the State House in the 1950s (he served in both bodies simultaneously, which you could do in those days).

That was a time when legislators were white, conservative, usually rural, and staunchly segregationist. Irvin, whose six-foot-five height is enhanced by the cowboy boots he wears with his business suits, had to navigate carefully through the racially charged issues of that period of Southern defiance.

Irvin helped a young educator in a neighboring North Georgia county win his first race for the state Senate in 1960 – a crewcut fellow named Zell Miller. Later, after Irvin left the House to become executive secretary to Gov. Lester Maddox, he brought along Miller (who had lost two congressional races against Phil Landrum) to work in the Maddox administration.

“I like to say I got Zell his first job in state government,” Irvin chuckles. “I remember when I brought him down here, I kept bringing Zell around to the governor’s office as often as I could and introduced him to Lester so he’d know who he was.”

When Phil Campbell resigned as agriculture commissioner in 1969, Maddox turned to his top aide and named Irvin as Campbell’s replacement. Irvin survived a tough challenge in the 1970 election and was in charge of the agriculture department for the next 36 years.

He was a prime target last year for Republicans who wanted to complete their takeover of state government by beating the longest-serving Democrat in elected office. The GOP thought it had a winner with a Sonny Perdue-backed candidate in a year when the Democratic nominee for governor ran a weak campaign that threatened to torpedo the rest of the ticket.

But Irvin, even though hampered at age 77 by the effects of a long struggle with diabetes, held them off one more time to take 56 percent of the vote and win his tenth consecutive term.

“They were making a concentrated attempt to get me out of this office and I think they thought they had me,” Irvin says. “I very rarely, unless I was in a situation I couldn’t avoid, ever mentioned the party. I told folks, ‘I’m Tommy Irvin, we’ve done a great job, I want you to vote for me.’ I made that point and it paid off.”

Although he downplays party ties at a time when most people from his part of the state have long since become Republicans, Irvin still considers himself a Democrat and faithfully attends party functions.

“I haven’t changed my values,” he says. “I see myself as one of the old-line, conservative Democrats, of which there are very few left.”

While he stresses these conservative values, Irvin also has some surprisingly progressive ideas. After a recent interview, he proudly showed his visitor some of the photographs that line the wood-paneled walls of his office.

One of those photos depicts Irvin meeting Fidel Castro on a recent trade mission to Cuba. If the U.S. can ever work out a trade agreement with that island nation, Irvin has long believed, it would open up some lucrative markets for Georgia’s perpetually distressed farmers.

Irvin also is determined to make his last term in office a productive one. He will push for wider production of bio-fuels and work with an old friend, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, in crafting a new congressional farm bill (Harkin, a Democrat, replaced Saxby Chambliss as agriculture committee chairman).

“You know, I love my work,” he says. “I have a lot of interest in making sure that we leave the department on a high. I have seen, in my experience, a lot of people, a lot of important people in similar situations, start coasting. I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna be a player.”

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

Categories: Political Notes