2023 Hall of Fame: Calvin Smyre – Lawmaker and Statesman

Lawmaker and statesman Calvin Smyre is the 2023 inductee.
Georgia Trend January 2023 Hall Of Fame Smyre 032 Jan 2023
Photo: NathanLeDuc.com

It is hard to imagine the Georgia House of Representatives without its dean: Calvin Smyre, the Columbus Democrat who served for 48 years and was the longest-tenured member of the legislature when he retired last year.

An early mentor told him, “Politics is public service,” and, he says, “a bell went off in my mind.” That simple statement guided and defined his career, as he became one of the most esteemed and influential lawmakers in the state and one of the first Black House members to have a significant leadership role at the Capitol. His next challenge: President Joe Biden has nominated him to be ambassador to the Bahamas. It is an exciting new chapter for a man who has left his mark on Georgia. Smyre, who was elected in 1974 when he was 26, served under seven Georgia governors as a member of the majority and, post-2002, the minority party. He was a force – often the force – in advancing some of the most important legislation of his era: establishing MLK Day as a state holiday; changing the state flag; funding transportation and transit initiatives; creating the HOPE Scholarship; passing a hate-crimes bill; and repealing the Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law.

His mastery of the legislative process earned him the respect of Republicans as well as members of his own party. Gov. Brian Kemp called him a statesman, and the late House Speaker David Ralston deemed it “an honor to have served with him.”

Smyre was born in Columbus and grew up in a military family. After his graduation from Fort Valley State University, he returned to Columbus and involved himself in community activities. When reapportionment created a new House seat for Columbus, one that likely could be won by a Black Democrat, Smyre was persuaded to run. He defeated several other candidates with what he modestly calls “a nice majority.”

Once in the legislature, he set about working in what would become his signature low-key fashion – negotiating, building consensus, finding common ground. It was a modus operandi that earned him the attention of some powerful leaders, like the late, legendary Speaker of the House Tom Murphy, who told him early on that he had a great future and appointed him to key committees.

He credits his time in the 1980s as former Gov. Joe Frank Harris’s assistant floor leader and then floor leader – he was the first African American to serve in that capacity – with burnishing his working style. “My job was to advance somebody else’s agenda, play the role of getting things done and attending the press conference rather than being the press conference. That’s how my career was molded.

“All politics is local. Everybody comes from a particular district,” he says of the mammoth 180-member House. “You have to be understanding and tolerant of the politics of each respective member. The key is one vote plus a majority in terms of getting what you want. I’ve been on the side of a lot of victories and on the side of losing as well. In a deliberative body you have to find coalitions to try and get to a majority.”

Two especially noteworthy victories came in 2020 and 2021, as he led efforts to pass a hate-crimes statute – Georgia was one of four U.S. states that lacked one – and to repeal the 1863 citizen’s arrest law. Both measures acquired a sense of urgency following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man killed by White men as he was jogging in Brunswick.

“I told Arbery’s mother, I promised her that if we could get the hate-crime [bill] passed, then we would do citizen’s arrest,” Smyre says. The hate-crimes bill passed in 2020. “And we came back the next year and did citizen’s arrest.”

Initially, there was opposition to both bills. “I knew we could not do both at the same time,” he says. “There had to be a lot of education, a lot of give-and-take and a lot of discussion. I sensed that people knew it was better for the state if we did this. I remember saying it was a defining moment for Georgia – I still feel the truth of that.”

The thread of Georgia’s progress as a state runs through Smyre’s career. He calls the 2015 transportation funding bill and the 2018 transit bill transformational. “I saw that as a quality-of-life issue – it was bipartisan. They changed the landscape of Georgia.”

He was able to deliver for the state as a whole, but he delivered for his constituents as well. He was a prime force in bringing about the Columbus RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. Smyre’s working life was spent at Synovus, the Columbus-based financial institution, where he had a 38-year career. He started as a management trainee and rose to the position

of executive vice president for external affairs and president of the Synovus Foundation.

As for his legacy: “I want to be known as a person who gave everything he had.”


Past Inductees

2022

Doug Hooker

Former Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission


2021

Ann Cramer

Senior Consultant, Coxe Curry & Associates

James Cox Kennedy

Chair, Cox Enterprises

 


2020

Johnny Isakson

(1944-2021)

Former U.S. Senator

 


2019

Michael Cassidy

Director, Emory Biomedical Catalyst

Maria Saporta

Founder & Editor, SaportaReport

Former writer & columnist, Atlanta Business Chronicle

 


2018

T. Rogers Wade

Chair, Governor’s Defense Initiative

Chair, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Philip Wilheit

Sr. President, Wilheit Packaging

 


2017

Hank Huckaby

(1941-2021)

Former Chancellor, University System of Georgia

Alicia Philipp

Former President, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

 


2016

Arthur Blank

Co-founder, The Home Depot

Owner, Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United

Alana Shepherd

Co-founder, Shepherd Center


2015

Bill Bolling

Founder & Former Executive Director, Atlanta Community Food Bank

Saxby Chambliss

Former U.S. Senator

 


2014

John Lewis

(1940-2020)

U.S. Congressman

Civil Rights Leader

Robert Shaw

Chair & CEO, Engineered Floors

Former Owner, Shaw Industries

 


2013

R. Charles “Charlie” Loudermilk

Founder & Chair Emeritus, Aaron’s Inc. Monica Pearson

Former News Anchor, WSB-TV

Monica Pearson

Former News Anchor, WSB-TV


2012

Otis Brumby

(1941-2012)

Publisher, The Marietta Daily Journal & Neighbor Newspapers

Bobby Cox

Former Manager, Atlanta Braves

2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee

 


2011

Ray Anderson

(1935-2011)

Chair, Interface Inc.

David Ratcliffe

Former CEO, Chair & President, Southern Co.

Franklin Skinner

(1931-2018)

Former CEO & Chair, BellSouth Telecommunications

 


2010

Joseph Lowery

(1921-2020)

Minister

Civil Rights Leader

Bill Shipp

Journalist

Political Columnist

 


2009

Spurgeon Richardson

(1941-2019)

Former President & CEO, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau

 


2008

Hank Aaron

(1934-2021)

Baseball Legend Founder & Owner, 755 Restaurant Corp.

Mack Mattingly

Former U.S. Senator

Former Assistant Secretary General (NATO)

Former U.S. Ambassador (Seychelles)

Carl Patton

Former President, Georgia State University

Herman J. Russell

(1930-2014)

Founder & Chair, H.J. Russell & Co.

 


2007

A.D. “Pete” Correll

(1941-2021)

Former Chair & CEO, Georgia-Pacific Corp.

Bernie Marcus

Co-founder, The Home Depot

Philanthropist

William S. Morris III

Founder, Chair & CEO, Morris Communications Co.

 


2006

James Blanchard

Former Chair & CEO, Synovus Financial Corp.

Zell Miller

(1932-2018)

Senior Strategic Advisor, McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP

Governor, U.S. Senator

Betty Siegel

(1931-2020)

President, Kennesaw State University

James Blanchard

Former Chair & CEO, Synovus Financial Corp.

Zell Miller

(1932-2018)

Senior Strategic Advisor, McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP

Governor, U.S. Senator

Betty Siegel

(1931-2020)

President, Kennesaw State University

 


2005

Tom Cousins

Founder, Former Chair & CEO, Cousins Properties Inc.

Philanthropist

Vince Dooley

Athletic Director Emeritus, University of Georgia

 


2004

Tommy Irvin

(1929-2017)

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture

Manuel Maloof

(1924-2004)

Longtime DeKalb County CEO & Commissioner

Sam Massell

Former President, Buckhead Coalition

Former Mayor, City of Atlanta

J. Mack Robinson

(1923-2014)

Businessman & Philanthropist

Ted Turner

Founder, CNN, TNT, TBS

Environmentalist & Philanthropist

 


2003

Griffin Bell

(1918-2009)

U.S. Attorney General U.S. Circuit Court Judge

S. Truett Cathy

(1921-2014)

Founder, Chick-fil-A Philanthropist

Jimmy Carter

Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Former U.S. President

Rosalynn Carter

Former First Lady

Mental Health Advocate

Thomas B. Murphy

(1924-2007)

Longtime Speaker, Georgia House of Representatives

Sam Nunn

Former U.S. Senator

National Defense Authority

John C. Portman Jr.

(1924-2017)

Architect, Developer, Entrepreneur

Carl Sanders

(1925-2014)

Governor, Attorney

Dr. Louis Sullivan

Founding Dean, Morehouse School of Medicine

Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services

Andrew Young

Former Mayor, City of Atlanta

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

 

Categories: Features, Hall of Fame, Honors, People