Late Friday morning, Casey Cagle stood stiffly at a table in his state Capitol office and gave a reporter a disc-by-disc tour of his upper spinal cord.
The lieutenant governor sorted through the black and white of X-ray and magnetic resonance images that showed cervical vertebrae Nos. 5 and 6. Their walls are eggshell thin. And a bone spur has sprouted in the same neighborhood.
But it is the C-7 vertebra, located roughly where Cagle’s neck joins his shoulders, that has caused a commotion in Republican politics. One side of the C-7 disc appears normal. The opposite wing has crumbled into a gray rubble.
The lieutenant governor spoke of growing numbness down his left arm, the possibility that paralysis could extend to his left leg, and “unbelievable” pain.
“This is ever-present. It never subsides and never goes away,” he said. “It only worsens. Even when I lay down.”
Two days earlier, backed by wife and sons, Cagle had faced down a bank of TV cameras and announced that upcoming surgery would force the GOP frontrunner — a poll that very morning had given him with a double-digit lead — to withdraw from the 2010 race for governor.
The lieutenant governor read from a prepared statement, choking up now and again. But he offered only vague details about his medical situation. Cagle, 43, then walked away without answering any questions, leaving his staff to invoke a veil of privacy.
Politicians are notoriously shy when it comes to discussion of anything that smacks of physical weakness. Think FDR and polio, JFK and Addison’s disease.
But the Capitol is a ruthless cathedral. Sleight-of-hand and hidden motives are assumed. If you can see something happening, a great student of the place once said, you’ve missed it.
Rumors erupted. Randy Evans, legal counsel for the state GOP, publicly raised the possibility that Cagle might have “unstated motivations” for leaving the race.
Cagle now intends to run for re-election as lieutenant governor. But two Republican state senators, David Shafer of Duluth and Eric Johnson, are already in the contest. If Cagle is to persuade them to abandon the field, he must make it clear that there is no other shoe waiting to drop.
Hence Cagle’s tour of his own spine, given reluctantly to a single journalist. And the lieutenant governor’s statement that, “unequivocally,” his upcoming surgery — which could occur the first week of May — is the only cause for his withdrawal.
“I have no reason, no reason whatsoever, to pull out of the race. Look at the facts. Here’s a guy that had raised $1.5 million. He had a 2-to-1 lead against his closest opponent,” Cagle said. “I’d hired my team. I had rented the office. Everything was full speed ahead. But the reality is there was another plan that was out of my control.”
Cagle said the examinations that led to a diagnosis began in mid-March. He made his final decision — his moment of “surrender,” as he put it — as he walked the grounds of Augusta National with his family last weekend.
The lieutenant governor went into more detail about his degenerative spinal condition. A bone graft will probably be necessary. Recovery could take until this fall. Risks include the temporary loss of his voice and, of course, paralysis. But doing nothing, he said, is too great a risk for his family — his youngest son is only 13.
Cagle declined to release the images of his spine. Nor would he give the name of his Emory University physician. “This is a little bit of a private matter, from my perspective,” Cagle said. Come the surgery, all questions would be answered, he promised.
But if Cagle can’t run for governor, why does he think he can handle a 2010 contest for lieutenant governor?
“It’s apples and oranges,” Cagle said. The governor’s race is underway now. There is $10 million to be raised, and five-hour car rides to be endured as you crisscross the state.
A re-election campaign for lieutenant governor, assuming no primary opposition, would cost $3 million. Campaigning could wait until next March or so.
Cagle said he is confident that, in the end, his Republican competition will discover other venues for their ambitions. “It’s been a longstanding tradition in the Senate that senators back the incumbents in the Republican party, and that we do not primary one another,” said the GOP’s first lieutenant governor. “I suspect you will find the caucus asking David and Eric to not to run.”
Cagle’s own ambitions are merely deferred. “I’m still a young man,” he said. “And there will be other opportunities.”
The football analogy was probably inevitable. “There are times when you are injured, that you don’t have the ability to get back on the field immediately,” Cagle said. “You’ve got to get yourself back in shape, because this is a contact sport. If anybody doesn’t believe it, they ain’t been around enough.”
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