A bait-and-switch was pulled on those of you who went to the polls on the first Tuesday of November.
For months, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had crisscrossed the state, warning that if Democrat Carol Porter were elected to replace him, a Republican-controlled Senate would immediately strip her of all power.
She would be an inert figurehead with a staff and a $91,609-a-year state salary, the Republican incumbent argued.
The lieutenant governor was re-elected by a comfortable margin. The people had spoken.
Three days later, at a closed meeting on the Mercer University campus in Macon, Republican members of the Senate voted to strip a stunned Cagle of nearly all his authority. When the General Assembly convenes in January, he’ll be little more than the figurehead he warned against.
As people in polite company say, payback is a harsh mistress.
That conclave in Macon, with its palace coup against Cagle, is significant as the first political consequence of an election that may have given Republicans a 20-year grip on the state.
With a GOP hand on every lever of import, the power struggles that matter are likely to be internal — and often behind closed doors.
Senators have bucked the lieutenant governor before. The last time was in 2003, when newly empowered Republicans grabbed the reins from Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat. They gave control back to Cagle after his 2006 election.
Picayune complaints about his management style aside, the immediate cause of Cagle’s demotion is the hospital bed tax passed by the Legislature this spring — which became necessary to balancing the state budget.
The lieutenant governor signed an agreement on the tax with Gov. Sonny Perdue and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, but failed to adequately consult Senate leadership.
When two Republican senators balked, Cagle — using the powers conceded to him by the Senate — yanked their committee chairmanships.
Status is important and personal at the state Capitol. To be called Mister or Madam Chairman adds a full six inches to any lawmaker’s height.
Over the summer, Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, and others quietly gathered up the necessary commitments from GOP senators and candidates yet to be elected.
The trap was sprung while Cagle was still celebrating his re-election. Over the lieutenant governor’s protests — he flew to Macon to argue his case personally — Cagle was stripped of his power to name the chairmen and other members of Senate committees.
Details of the coup haven’t been placed in writing, and the chambers’ two top leaders, Williams and Rogers, have declined to offer specifics.
But the Senate will be ruled by an eight-member Committee on Assignments. Cagle will still preside over the Senate — a power given to him by the state Constitution.
For those of you who yawn at such things, let me put it in crass political terms: 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 legislation this way or that — has the power.
With the lieutenant governor in complete control of the Senate, lobbyists lined up eight or 10 deep in his office — lobbyists who control access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, and thus entire political futures. Committee chairmen were ignored.
Lobbyists will now have to curry favor with several Senate leaders.
But Cagle will still deserve some attention. In their haste, Senate revolutionaries may have overlooked an important weapon in the lieutenant governor’s arsenal.
Cagle, we’re told, retains his authority to appoint conference committees, where senators engage House members in the crucial final rounds of negotiation over important legislation — including the state budget.
It is a power used primarily during the last days of a four-month session. But if used properly, and if Senate Republicans let Cagle keep it, this oversight could become the equivalent of taking a general’s sword but leaving him the loaded cannon.
Unfinished revolutions can be messy things. Ask any Frenchman.
As a footnote, at the same private meeting in Macon, Senate Republicans decided that — after listening to the daily sermon and declaring their allegiance to the U.S. flag — all members of their chamber will also be required to swear fealty to the Georgia flag.
The move is certain to prompt another round of heated discussions about state sovereignty. State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, has already said he will absent himself rather than recite the pledge.