Still Going Strong

It has been a long, long journey for George T. Smith – from plowing behind a mule in south Georgia during the 1920s to playing a pivotal role in the state’s most tumultuous political period, to occupying a seat in the elegantly furnished dining room of one of Atlanta’s most prestigious law firms.

On this afternoon, Smith was the luncheon guest of not one but two former governors – Carl Sanders and Roy Barnes – who were there with a few other friends to celebrate Smith’s upcoming 92nd birthday (which actually occurs on Oct. 15) and tell a story or two about those old times.

Smith truly is a unique figure in Georgia’s political history, being the only person ever to win contested elections for offices in all three branches of state government.

A graduate of Hopeful High School in Mitchell County, ABAC and the UGA law school, Smith went all the way to Cairo as a young man to interview with an attorney about joining his firm. He was asked two questions: Are you a Baptist? Do you have any interest in public office?

“I answered ‘yes’ to both of them,” Smith said.

He was elected to the House of Representatives by Cairo voters in 1958 and was named House speaker by Sanders in 1963 (this was back in the day when the governor decided such things as who the speaker would be).

Somebody once asked him what the vote margin was when Smith was elected House speaker. “One vote,” Smith replied. “The governor was for me.”

“With all due respect to Tom Murphy, who was a good speaker, this was my speaker,” said Sanders, who hosted the birthday lunch at the Troutman Sanders law offices. “I think he was the best speaker.”

Even the best speaker needed a little prodding from time to time. Retired congressman Doug Barnard, who was the governor’s executive secretary, recalled that there was a phone on Sanders’ desk that connected directly to Smith’s phone in the House chamber.

“Many was the time I would be in the governor’s office and he would pick up the telephone and say, ‘George T., call the damn vote. You’ve got the votes, call the vote!’” Barnard said with a chuckle.

Smith ran for lieutenant governor in 1966 in what was considered a long-shot race against incumbent Peter Zack Geer, a flamboyant attorney who came from a family of die-hard segregationists (Geer’s father, a Superior Court judge, once threatened to jail FBI agents if they tried to investigate voting rights discrimination in Terrell County).

Geer had a history of shooting from the hip in political campaigns and he made some ill-considered remarks that Smith exploited to win an upset victory in the Democratic primary.

“He got overconfident,” Smith said. “When you’re in politics, be careful what you say. Your tongue can hang you, over and over and over again.”

Smith won the lieutenant governor’s race in the same election cycle that saw the Legislature picking Lester Maddox over Bo Callaway for governor. If nothing else, Smith’s victory spared the state the embarrassment of having racial segregationists in the top two offices.

Smith tried to run for governor in 1974 but fell short in a crowded Democratic primary that included Maddox, George Busbee, Bert Lance and Bobby Rowan. He came right back in 1976 and won a seat on the Court of Appeals, then won a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court in 1980 and served there until forced to retire in 1991 at the age of 75.

He ended up in Marietta working in a law firm with Barnes and Tom Browning until Barnes, in Browning’s words, got elected governor and “went to Atlanta to live in public housing.” He still practices law and tries cases with Browning today as he nears the age of 92.

Smith keeps a picture on his office wall of a south Georgia farmer plowing behind a mule. Barnes once asked him why he chose to display that particular piece of art.

“I keep that here to remind me that no matter how bad it gets in this law office, it’s a lot better than plowing behind that mule where I started,” Smith said.

“He has come a long way from where he started,” Barnes said. And evidently, he still has a way to go.

Categories: Political Notes