Since the dust settled from last month’s elections, six state lawmakers, all white and all from rural Georgia, have thrown up their hands in despair.
With the Democratic Party entering a kind of twilight existence in Georgia, the six have declared themselves Republicans.
In both the House and the Senate, GOP leaders are now within a few arm-twists of the two-thirds majority necessary to settle all constitutional questions and — perhaps just as important — override a governor’s veto.
November’s Democratic deflation could tempt one to declare politics at an end in Georgia. But it is simply moving into a more subtle, intramural phase in which six virginal Republicans could play a crucial role — particularly in the House.
Georgia politics has become an all-Republican matter of fiscal conservatism vs. social conservatism. With Democrats largely on the sidelines.
The new battle lines have been emerging over the past few sessions of the Legislature on issues such as immigration, abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Often the difference is one of tone rather than substance. Confrontations often occur behind closed doors, during members-only sessions.
But twice in the past month disputes have broken out into the open. In the House, a contest for majority leader pitted Rep. Larry O’Neal of Bonaire, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, against Rep. James Mills of Gainesville, one of the strongest social conservatives in the chamber.
O’Neal’s margin of victory was not made public. We’re told that the vote wasn’t particularly close. “I wish I would have gotten commitments from my own Hall County delegation. That would have helped,” Mills told a reporter. “But that’s water under the bridge.” Yet the division was, and remains, very real.
Last month’s coup against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle by Republican leaders of the Senate, stripping him of authority over that chamber, could be interpreted as another facet of the social-fiscal conflict.
For decades, under Democratic rule, members of the state Senate patterned themselves after their Washington counterparts: They were in the deliberative chamber where hot legislation went to cool off.
That has become less so since the Republican takeover. Some of the most divisive social measures of the past few years — on immigration, abortion, stem cell research, voter ID and firearm possession — have had their speedy births in the Senate.
Politicians elected statewide, including the lieutenant governor, often prefer their legislation without sharp edges — and to that extent, Cagle has occasionally served as a brake. But no longer. The Republican senators now in charge hail from districts that are thoroughly populated with GOP voters. Subtlety is no longer required.
That makes the House — with its labyrinth of a committee system — even more important for fiscal conservatives who want to avoid what they see as the excesses of their socially committed colleagues.
In the last legislative session, the lobbyist for Georgia Right to Life was reduced to shouts of protest — outside the House doors — as he saw the group’s most prized bill die. The measure to make abortions based on race a crime had quickly cleared the Senate. But it became bogged down in the passive-aggressive limbo of the House — too hot to kill and too hot to pass.
This is where five former Democrats — state Reps. Alan Powell of Hartwell, Bob Hanner of Parrot, Amy Carter and Ellis Black of Valdosta, and Gerald Greene of Cuthbert — could make an outsized difference. (Tim Golden, a Democrat from Valdosta, switched in the Senate.)
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” said Hanner, a 35-year veteran of the Capitol.
“I was Gerald yesterday, I’m Gerald today, and I’ll be Gerald tomorrow,” Greene said.
Powell, upon becoming the first to switch after the Nov. 2 vote, said he remains as curmudgeonly hostile to Republican extremes as he is to Democratic ones. “My politics have not changed, but I saw the numbers crystal clear,” Powell said. “I am reflecting my constituents.”
None of the five wants to step on the toes of new friends, and all declare themselves to be lifelong conservatives. But none has offered up evidence of a road-to-Damascus conversion like that experienced by Zell Miller, the former governor and U.S. senator who has became a champion of conservative social issues.
In all likelihood, the five Democratic converts in the House will provide ballast for the fiscally conservative side of the Republican ledger, making it even harder for the most passionate members of the GOP base to get what they want.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider