Georgian Of The Year: Saxby Chambliss

A hard-won re-election victory for Georgia’s senior senator gives his party some breathing room
Victory Speech: After an intense campaign|!!| Chambliss prevailed in Georgia’s Senatorial runoff election

It was a long, punishing campaign that generated far more heat than light. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss and his Democratic challenger Jim Martin slugged and slogged their way through an extended battle characterized by negative ads, celebrity appearances and money and attention from both national parties.

The race that once looked like an easy win for Chambliss went to a runoff, courtesy of a crashing national economy and growing support for Barack Obama. But the senator used the additional weeks of campaigning to rally his party’s conservative base and win the Dec. 2 re-match by a commanding 14 percentage points.

Saxby Chambliss, who returns to Washington this month to begin his second term in the Senate, is Georgia Trend’s 2009 Georgian of the Year.

His victory denies Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate even as it underscores the work that lies ahead for his own party.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock says the runoff win can be attributed to “Republicans getting their electorate inspired and getting them back to the polls. What this runoff showed is that part of the Democrats’ success, maybe a substantial part of it, was keyed to the presence of Barack Obama at the top of the ticket; and without his appeal the Democrats, maybe particularly the African-American Democrats, didn’t come back.”

But Bullock says the GOP has its work cut out for it. “If we go back to 1996 about 74 percent of Georgia’s registered voters at that time were white; now it’s down below 63 percent. The Republican Party does very poorly in attracting minority voters. Long-term, there are some very troubling things for Republicans. Ultimately [they] have to be able to have an appeal to bring in some of our increasingly diverse voters.”

Sue Everhart, chairman of the Repub-lican Party of Georgia, believes Chambliss’s record as a supporter of Georgia’s defense and agricultural interests won over some Democrats in the runoff. “We need to have an experienced senator in Washington in these hard times,” she says.

Tough campaigns and all, Saxby Cham-bliss’s political career tracks the recent history of the Georgia Republican Party – its successes, its stumbles, its internal conflicts and the recovery that keeps it alive to fight another day.

The Senator

Chambliss is a self-described “regular person,” an affable man who connects with ordinary citizens and powerful leaders alike. He is smart, focused and resilient. A conservative, pro-business Republican, he took heat from his own party and the GOP members of the Georgia House delegation – and provided campaign fodder for Jim Martin – when he voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout last fall.

Chambliss was elected to the U.S House in 1994, just in time to be part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican surge that gave his party control of the House of Representatives halfway into President Bill Clinton’s first term.

“When I got there, the speaker of the house [Gingrich] was in my delegation,” Chambliss says. “I was able to choose the two committees I wanted to serve on – agriculture and defense. In my congressional district those were the two major economic influences and the two major economic influences in the state.”

He won re-election to three more terms; but in 2002, after redistricting changed the state’s congressional district configuration, he challenged first-term Democratic Senator Max Cleland – and won, in a campaign that rivaled the 2008 race for toughness. It tagged Chambliss as the candidate who portrayed Cleland, a decorated triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, as unpatriotic – in an ad that was an issue in 2008 as well.

“It was a tough ad, but politics is a contact sport,” Chambliss says. “I have never run a political ad that didn’t tell the truth. We questioned Max’s voting record all through the campaign. He never one time responded to one of those ads – he couldn’t because they were true. Same thing in this campaign.

“The things he was saying about me – nobody ever raised that issue, but he said some horrible things about me. But that’s politics and that’s a campaign.”

Early in his Senate career, Chambliss seemed to lead a charmed life – he had access to the White House and was much sought-after as a guest on weekend political talk shows. He earned a reputation as President Bush’s go-to guy; but there were issues on which they disagreed.

He has continued to stand with Bush on the war, although he says voting to send young men and women into battle “is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do.” He spent two of the last four Thanksgivings in Iraq and made six trips there altogether. He is proud of work he has done to secure medical care for the troops.

Chambliss and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota put together a bipartisan group, the Gang of Ten, to work on the energy crisis with the goal of making the country energy independent; their efforts were eclipsed by the economic meltdown last fall, but Chambliss believes the group’s work will “be the focal point of developing legislation on becoming energy independent.”

His bipartisan effort drew criticism from members of his party. “Lots of Republicans gave me a hard time because they felt like we were taking an issue away from the Republicans going into the election,” he says.

“My response to that is pretty swift. People in Georgia were paying $4 a gallon for gasoline back then when we started this process, and it was shooting holes in everybody’s family budget. I was sent here by the people that elected me to try and find solutions to problems, and this is a problem and by gosh I’m going to do everything I can to try and solve it irrespective of what it does from a political consequences side.

“We did take a lot of heat for that, but that’s OK. We played a major role in having a moratorium on drilling on the outer continental shelf lifted. That was done at the end of September.”

Agriculture Advocate

Chambliss has worked on three different farm bills, complicated and wide-ranging pieces of legislation that are years in the making. He chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee for two years but lost his chairmanship when Democrats won control of the Senate in 2006 and became the ranking Republican – still wielding a great deal of influence. As the senator from an agricultural state, he supported crop subsidies; he also worked to make the food stamp program easier to access.

“If you believe what talk shows say and newspapers report,” he says, “all the farm bill is, is a cash cow for farmers, and nothing could be further from the truth. I traveled the country literally, held field hearings in seven different parts of the country and listened to farmers and ranchers about the importance of agriculture to their area.

“We cover the gamut of support for farmers, from a price standpoint, to school lunches to the construction of broadband in rural areas, so it’s an extremely complex piece of legislation. During the course of our hearings, both in Washington and outside Washington, it became obvious to me that the biggest item from a price tag standpoint was food stamps.

“When I found out over the course of this farm bill that one out of every 10 Georgians utilizes food stamps [at some point] it surprised me no end,” he says. “We have an awful lot of Georgians who utilize food stamps at some point in time.” The program, he says, needed overhauling and modernizing; it hadn’t been modified for the last 25 years.

“I wanted to make some necessary changes so we could streamline the process. We’ve done a good job of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse over the years. Now it’s come to the point where we do need to make it more accessible to the folks who really need it.”

One provision he targeted successfully for change stipulated that an individual who had a personal asset such as an automobile worth in excess of $2,000 could not qualify for food stamps.

“Here we are, telling people who are on food stamps we want to get you off food stamps and we want to get you off welfare, we want you going to work and we want to help you transfer from welfare and food stamps to work.

“But if they don’t have a vehicle that allows them to have transportation, it’s pretty hard for them to do that. I was instrumental in getting that value raised – to $4,000 for seniors and to $3,500 for everybody else, so more people could have access.”

Another provision Chambliss was successful in having included allows individuals to access enrollment forms via computer. He was affected by testimony from a mother who told him she had to take off work for an entire day to physically go to a DFCS office to register, when she could easily have gone to the library at night to use a computer to fill out forms.

“Lots of people said, ‘Why is a Republican doing this?’ It doesn’t sound very Republican-ish, but I have a lot of compassion for those folks. And we need to try to help them every way we can.”

Chambliss is proud, too, of farm bill sections that have made it easier for community food banks to operate and of the conservation title.

W The President

Chambliss unhesitatingly calls George Bush his friend. “When he was elected in 2000, I was a member of the House,” Chambliss says. “I got to know him early on, and we became good friends. I like him personally. He’s a conservative Republican, I’m a conservative Republican, so naturally we had a lot in common.”

Bush actively campaigned for Chambliss during his first Senate race in 2002 and helped him raise money.

“When you’re in the Senate, you get a lot more calls from the White House than you do in the House, just by the fact that you’re one of 100 rather than 435. But all of a sudden I was getting called by the White House, asking about political issues more than, frankly, I anticipated.

“I got to be good friends with other folks within the administration,” he says, naming Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush advisor Karl Rove. He volunteers, with a straight face, that he and Cheney hunt together.

“During the 2004 re-election I was very much a spokesperson for him [Bush] and his policies because I believed in them. There were things I could talk about that he and I agree on, so it made it pretty easy for me. And I was asked to do a lot of speaking on behalf of the administration, and I was glad to do it.”

But differences arose: the farm bill, immigration, Medicare – the doctor fix, and the water bill, or the Water Resource Development Act, all of which Bush was opposed to or vetoed. “He didn’t get to veto the immigration bill because it didn’t get passed,” Chambliss says. “I voted to override his veto on the other three.”

He expresses compassion for the man who came into the White House with swagger and leaves with an approval rating in the cellar. “There’s never been a president that’s had more difficult issues to deal with during his administration than this president,” Chambliss says. “I’m not sure how history will treat him, but I think certainly much kinder than the press is treating him now.”

The Bailout

Last fall’s financial rescue package presented Chambliss and other conservative lawmakers with a real dilemma: How much government intervention to countenance? He and Johnny Isakson voted for the bailout; but Republican members of Georgia’s House delegation voted against it, although a press conference in late October brought the two senators and six of the seven Republican representatives together to deliver a unity message and make the point that they were still “family,” despite their differences.

Chambliss understands opposition to the bailout and even the anger of many of his constituents when they heard the proposal. “I was angry, too. I was as mad as could be when I heard this from Secretary Paulsen. I said, ‘Somebody’s dropped the ball.’”

He had followed the startling developments involving marquee names such as Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and AIG, but admits to being taken by surprise. “All of a sudden Secretary Paulsen comes to the Hill and says, ‘I need $700 billion to bail out – or to rescue – the financial community, and if I don’t get the money then we’re going to see a total collapse of the financial system.’ That’s a pretty sobering statement.

“The amount of it shocked me, number one, but just the fact that we were in that kind of a crisis really disturbed me,” he says.

“What I did was to get on the phone and call bankers all around the state that I know and I trust – big banks, small banks, small rural bank presidents. I called businesspeople that could tell me what was going on in their financial world – small businesspeople as well as large manufacturers and CEOs and large employers. I called economists, university professors. What I was told by every single person I called was, ‘There is a crisis and we’re fixing to have a meltdown if something doesn’t happen.’ While it all stemmed from the subprime issue, the crisis now was about the credit crunch we were in and the contraction of the credit market.”

Chambliss says he came to realize that there was a real potential for banks to fail, “which meant 401(k)s would be lost, retirement savings would be lost, pension plans could be devastated. It became pretty obvious to me that we had to do something.”

The question was whether Paulsen’s proposal was the right one. “I finally did get convinced that there was the opportunity to make this work, but there were some issues involved that I thought needed to be changed. There were other folks exactly like me. We wanted more oversight, wanted criminal prosecutions of folks that committed the activities that benefited from all this subprime stuff and … needed to be sure we changed any regulations that needed to be changed and [that] not all corporate executives [were] to get these golden parachutes if they’re CEOs of institutions that need to participate in the government program.

“More important, I needed to be convinced that we had the opportunity to be repaid whatever amount of money we put out there. I became convinced that this was the right way to go, that we did have a good chance to get repaid, have a good chance that this was going to work. I felt that doing nothing would just be irresponsible on my part.”

There were repercussions, of course. “The easy vote would have been to vote no, the political vote was to vote no,” Chambliss says. “But when I stepped back and thought about it, if I want to make sure this economy is strong and thriving for my children … there was just no question we had to do something, and this proposal was the best route to go. Thus it became an easy vote for me – even though I knew that we would catch a lot of flack from folks, because our phone calls ran about 20 to 1 in opposition. But the people who were in support of it, they were people who won’t typically pick up the phone and call their congressman.”

The Partnership

Perhaps the strongest influence in Chambliss’s personal and political life is his wife Julianne. She is energetic and gracious, an indefatigable campaigner who moves easily in any situation.

Her husband is fully aware of all she brings to his career – and to his life. His voice breaks when he talks of the woman who was his UGA college sweetheart and has been his wife for 42 years.

“She is by far my best asset,” he says. “I can’t overemphasize what an influence she’s had in my life. Number one, she’s my biggest critic, but she’s my biggest supporter. She’s right 100 percent of the time. She doesn’t criticize me unless I need it. She’s just unbelievable, dealing with people from a political standpoint. She taught for 30 years, so she prepares for whatever she has to talk about. She can finish any sentence I start. Most important, she’s just herself. She’s the best mother that any children could have. She’s just a great lady.”

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