Note: This is an edited version of a column that has already appeared on this blog. It is published here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column. Another blog entry will be posted shortly.
If you believe House Speaker David Ralston, ethics reform is a liberal cause backed by liberal groups and the liberal media, and conservatives who back ethics reform are being played for suckers.
“In times of great majorities like we enjoy now, we must remember that there are those around us who seek nothing less than to divide us,” he told his fellow Republicans at the state GOP convention in Columbus on Friday. “There are those who would sow the seeds of dissension and discord in order to advance a self-absorbed agenda that’s not consistent with the best interests of our party.
“Let me be very clear. Regardless of the course that others may take, as for me and the people’s House of this state, we are going to stand united, working hard, standing Republican shoulder to Republican shoulder, to make Georgia a better state — and not align ourselves with media elites and liberal special interest groups.”
That statement is the biggest load of baloney I can remember from a major Georgia politician not named Newt Gingrich. Ethics reform is not a partisan issue; it is not an ideological issue. Liberal Americans and conservative Americans may not agree about a lot of things, but they do agree about the impropriety of elected public officials taking $17,000 family vacations to Europe on a lobbyist’s dollar, as Ralston has done.
They do agree that lobbyists shouldn’t be plying public officials of either party with $250 rounds of golf and $300 dinners and $500-a-night resort hotel rooms. There is no partisan divide among the citizens of Georgia on that question, and Ralston knows it. He knows it and he fears it.
In fact, any doubt about the nonpartisan nature of the debate should be wiped away by what happened later in Columbus. Ignoring the protests of Ralston and other officeholders, the state GOP decided to put an advisory question on the GOP primary ballot this July, asking Republican voters whether they believe that gifts from lobbyists to legislators ought to be limited to $100 or less.
The people who supported that measure are not liberals and they are not liberal dupes, as Ralston seems to suggest. The same is true of Republican primary voters who will vote overwhelming in favor of that measure come July.
Ralston’s attempt to make this a test of party loyalty is ludicrous. He has clearly decided that preserving the privileges and entitlements that he and his fellow elected officials enjoy is more important than honoring the opinions of his party membership and the people of Georgia.
The divide, in other words, is not between Republican and Democrat or liberal and conservative. The divide is between the people of this state and those who believe that the title of senator or representative is an entitlement to the spoils of power.
In the aftermath of Ralston’s blast, a group calling itself the Capitol Coalition of Conservative Government responded by pointing out the obvious, that “strong ethics and accountability are not a matter of right versus left. They are a matter of right versus wrong.”
“[Ralston's] comments imply that voters and activists should hide our eyes from the realities of ethics violations and the need for reform and stand by everyone no matter what they do, simply because they have an “R” behind their name,” the group’s statement said. “Rather than open his heart to the cries from citizens that we have the right to call for accountability, his comments reflect those of someone who seeks to divide our party by falsely accusing those who stand for our values of being divisive. His comments were arrogant and pompous and show an attitude that is anything but a humble public servant.”
It was also amusing to see Ralston once again trying to perform an exquisite ethical two-step. On the one hand, he argues that as speaker he “represent(s) a caucus that are basically good people doing good jobs,” and he feigns surprise that Republican voters might question the ethical purity of their own legislators.
He then turns around and warns that if gifts over $100 are outlawed, those very same “good people” in the Georgia Legislature would continue to accept those gifts anyway, in violation of the law.
I don’t believe that’s true, just as I don’t believe that ethics reform is a liberal cause. However, if Ralston continues to insist otherwise, Georgia Democrats will probably be eager to spread his message across the state.