Politics is the story of old alliances falling apart and the formation of new ones — the birth of feuds and burial of ancient hatchets.
At the state Capitol, we’re about to witness the creation of a new collaboration that — if successful — could give permanent, Georgia-centered purpose to a tea party movement that so far has concentrated on the sins of Washington.
Last October, the state’s network of tea party groups gathered to put the finishing touches on a list of positions they wanted candidates for the state Legislature to put their names to.
Many of the aims could be classed as ideological: Property and income tax reform, hard limits on the growth of the state budget, and mandatory school courses on the U.S. Constitution.
Other demands were not. Candidates for the General Assembly were asked to endorse bans on trips paid by lobbyists, on all gifts from lobbyists, and on sweetheart state contracts for state lawmakers, high elected officials, and their relatives.
To put it politely, despite the constant genuflections from Republicans toward tea party activists, the petition did not catch fire — and played no discernible role in the Nov. 2 election.
But the effort began a conversation. Several of them. Over the Christmas holidays, leaders of the Georgia chapter of the Tea Party Patriots hosted a meeting that included the leadership of Common Cause of Georgia, the League of Women Voters of Georgia and Ray Boyd, the gubernatorial aspirant-turned-ethical watchdog.
A cross-ideological alliance was formed. The three groups may have completely different agendas, admitted Julianne Thompson, one of the tea party organizers who pulled the session together. “But there’s one area that we all agree on — and that is we need tough ethics reform in Georgia,” she said.
And all agree that a reform package passed by the Legislature last year, in the wake of the scandal over then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson’s dalliance with a natural gas lobbyist, was not enough.
A shopping list of demands has yet to be completed — and a formal announcement of the alliance may not happen for a few weeks. A $100 limit on gifts is likely to be one aim. A ban on state contracts for well-connected brothers-in-law may be another.
Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said restoring the rule-making authority stripped from the State Ethics Commission is her group’s top priority.
Residents of the state Capitol often shake their heads at what they see as an overemphasis on ethics by members of the press — particularly in the opening days of each legislative session. Voters don’t care, they say.
There is some truth in this. During her Republican campaign for governor, Karen Handel bludgeoned the Legislature for its close dealing and good-ol’-boy ways. On Monday, she will not be the one on the Capitol steps with her hand on a Bible.
But an ethics alliance juiced by tea party fervor has possibilities.
Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are old hands in the Capitol. They know how to draft legislation. The chairman of Common Cause is Bob Irvin, an Atlanta attorney and Republican who is the former House minority leader. (He is currently in Israel and was unavailable for an interview.)
But neither group can summon pitchforks. The tea party movement can. The question is whether tea partyists can be made as angry about shady dealings in Atlanta as they are about health care reform in Washington.
Thompson thinks the answer is yes. “We have 100 percent support for all of our tea party groups on this,” she said.
It’s a heavy lift. Having dealt with ethics reform last year, legislators are less than eager to pick it up again. “We always welcome new and innovative ideas,” said House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs. “But these are proposals that have been heard before, reviewed, and do not accomplish their goals. If they did, we’d implement them.”
In the Senate, Boyd’s participation in the ethics alliance could prove problematic. Days before the Nov. 2 election, the real estate executive filed an ethics complaint against Casey Cagle, alleging that the lieutenant governor had an affair with a campaign staffer and overpaid her with campaign funds. (A Cagle spokesman called the allegation “absolutely false.”)
Cagle has been deposed as the ruler of the Senate but he still has friends in the chamber.
And yet, even in Washington, Republicans understand that a failure to police themselves was at the heart of their fall from congressional power in 2006.
One of House Speaker John Boehner’s first decisions this week was to keep the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent, non-partisan panel established by the U.S. House and charged with reviewing accusations of misconduct by its members.
The OCE is the entity that investigated allegations that Nathan Deal had used his congressional office to lobby state officials and protect his auto salvage business.
Its findings were made public at the outset of last year’s campaign for governor. Deal, who takes office Monday, denounced the report as a political smear.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider