Call this the story of Mark Taylor’s revenge.
But first, let us agree to a set of terms. The rebellion in Macon that stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of his powers late Friday may have indeed been the “power-sharing agreement” that Republican senators claim.
In the same way that Sonny Liston “shared” the heavyweight title with Cassius Clay. The way that the Texas Rangers “shared” the World Series title with the San Fransciso Giants.
And the way you “share” your paycheck with Uncle Sam. That kind of sharing.
With a final voice vote, the Republican caucus removed Cagle’s power to appoint committee chairmen. This is the biggest hammer in any lieutenant governor’s arsenal. It is the key to his influence.
You’ll recall that two senators – Preston Smith of Rome and Judson Hill of Marietta – lost their chairmanships this year when they refused to go along with fee and tax increases in the budget bill.
Nor will Cagle be allowed to determine the make-up of Senate committees, a lesser but still important power. The lieutenant governor will be allowed to direct legislation to particular committees – but only under the supervision of the Senate membership.
That’s more than a fig leaf, but less than a Johnny Weissmuller-style loincloth.
“He was gutted,” one senator said privately last night.
The real clout in the Senate will now devolve on an eight-member committee: President pro tem Tommie Williams, five GOP caucus officers, and two Senate appointees by Cagle. Cagle was expressly prohibited from membership on the committee.
Before we get to what actually happened on Friday, a short history lesson is in order. Until Lester Maddox won in 1966 through a vote by the Legislature, appointment of committee chairmanships in both the House and the Senate were made by the governor.
Afterwards, in the Senate, the power has been at the center of a tug-of-war between elected members of the chamber, and a lieutenant governor elected statewide.
But in 2003, after Democrat Mark Taylor won re-election, but the Senate shifted to Republican control, the lieutenant governor was stripped of everything but his constitutionally protected power to preside over daily sessions of the Senate.
Power in the state Capitol is all about “the ask.” He who must be asked – for a line item in the budget, for a few words to tip this legislation or that — has the power.
This was at the center of what happened in the Woodruff House on the Mercer University campus on Friday.
Individual Republican senators enjoyed a great deal of influence during the days of Taylor. They lost it when the office of lieutenant governor was placed in Republican hands. Lobbyists line up eight or 10 deep in Cagle’s office. Not in the offices of senators.
“The ask” had slipped from their grasp.
Last spring, state Sen. Dan Moody, R-Roswell, decided he would not return to the Senate, and resigned as GOP caucus chair. Two candidates vied to replace him. One was Chip Pearson of Dawsonville, a Cagle ally.
The other was Bill Cowsert of Athens. Cowsert promised to reexamine the balance of power between the lieutenant governor and ruling senators. Cowsert won.
Over the summer, he allied with Williams and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers. Votes were quietly lined up. No one wanted to embarrass Cagle before Tuesday’s election.
A Republican caucus meeting was scheduled. But Cagle wasn’t formally told what was up until Thursday. At a noon meeting – after news of the coup had become public – Rogers and Cowsert came to present Cagle with what they had in mind. Williams attended by speakerphone.
The senators proposed that the Senate be ruled by a six-member committee, all endorsed and elected in some fashion by the caucus.
Only two days earlier, Cagle had beaten his Democratic opponent with 55 percent of the vote, Needless to say, he was miffed. Mightily miffed.
But he accepted an invitation to address the caucus. When Republican senators gathered on the Merce campus at 10 a.m., the lieutenant governor was the first speaker.
He addressed the caucus for 30 to 40 minutes, we’re told. According to someone who was in the room, one line from Cagle’s speech stood out. But no one was taking notes, so we’ll avoid any quotation marks. The Senate doesn’t need six masters, Cagle is reported to have said. It needs one master.
In closing, the lieutenant governor asked the caucus to name one thing – just one – he’d done to justify the move that the caucus was about to make. Cowsert, chairman of the meeting, politely informed Cagle that the forum wasn’t designed to become a question-and-answer session.
Cagle and his chief of staff, Bart Gobeil, were asked to leave.
Next came Dan Moody, the former caucus chair and soon-to-be former senator. Moody laid out the case for a self-ruling Senate. One description: His address was calm, impersonal and scathing. Then Moody, too, was asked to leave.
The fight last until 5 p.m. or so. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga led the pro-Cagle faction, arguing that a committee-led Senate would have its clock cleaned next session when issues boiled down to confrontations with House Speaker David Ralston and the new governor.
Proponents of stripping Cagle argued that the lieutenant governor had become remote, and that his messages to senators were often simply conveyed by his staff.
The day hinged on the dull question of whether a two-thirds vote of the caucus was needed to make what was about to happen the required position of all senators. The senators decided no. The question of Cagle’s powers would come down to majority vote.
The only change in the Senate plans was to increase membership on the Senate’s committee on assignments – the ruling committee – from six to eight. Cagle would be given two appointments.
The new masters of the Senate: Williams; Rogers; Cowsert; Majority Whip Cecil Staton of Macon; Caucus Vice Chairman David Shafer of Duluth; and Caucus Secretary Greg Goggins of Douglas.
Though the final vote was unrecorded, we’re told the margin was wide – an important point. The Senate has 56 members. Near unanimity in the caucus would put out of reach any attempt by Cagle to work around this coup by forming an alliance with Democrats – something he hasn’t indicated he’s willing to do.
The Macon Telegraph provides this coda:
Staton said the decision to take away some of Cagle’s power was not because of discontent with Cagle’s leadership. Staton maintained that the decision was a routine refinement of the caucus’ rules.
“This is not, in my view, any attempt to sleight or take anything away from Lt. Gov. Cagle himself. He will still have quite a lot of power, and it has nothing to do with him personally. This is simply a routine rule change, and it’s a way to keep a good balance between the lieutenant governor and the Senate,” Staton said.
Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, also was one of the legislators who called Friday’s meeting. Rogers insisted the decision was not meant to reflect the chamber’s view of Cagle personally.
“Every single member of this body not only supports Cagle’s leadership but considers him a personal friend,” Rogers said. “This is simply a new power-sharing agreement that we’ve come to.”
But Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said Friday afternoon that he wasn’t convinced the decision to trim Cagle’s power was entirely fair.
“It’s certainly disappointing that they’re wanting to do this, especially given the fact that the voters so clearly expressed support of Cagle in Tuesday’s election,” Fry said.
Fry said he didn’t know what might have motivated the caucus to reach its decision, but that Cagle remained confident in the caucus’ judgment.
“We’re not ready to speculate on what might have led the caucus to be called, and we’re not going to get involved in the politics,” Fry said. “As always, Cagle is focused on doing what the voters overwhelmingly elected him to do, which is to serve this state.”
One thing is certain: A reduced Cagle will find it harder to raise money in any race for governor that heats up in the next four or eight years.