CARROLLTON, Ga. — Half of Georgia’s political world – by and large, the older half – turned out Thursday for the formal dedication of a recreation of the late House Speaker Tom Murphy’s office on the campus of the University of West Georgia.
Earlier this week, we described the recreated office with its eclectic collection of mementoes gathered up by Murphy over his 28-year career as leader of the House.
Much of Murphy’s nearby hometown of Bremen witnessed the event, as did all four House speakers who have followed him, two governors, a labor commissioner and a roomful of former lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers.
The political population gave the ceremony the air of a long-delayed, and much overdue, Irish wake. Murphy left office in 2003, and died in late 2007. A few high points:
House Speaker David Ralston was on stage as one of the speakers. The other three speakers were front and center: Terry Coleman, the last Democrat; Glenn Richardson, and Mark Burkhalter, both Republicans.
Before the proceedings began, Richardson and former Gov. Roy Barnes shared a manly, bipartisan bear-hug of greeting. They are currently on the same side of a lawsuit against Georgia Power.
Wayne Garner, the mayor of Carrollton, a former state lawmaker and currently a lobbyist, welcomed the several hundred gathered with a borrowed thought from Jack Kennedy:
“There’s never been more political acumen, political intelligence, and institutional knowledge under one roof – since Tom Murphy dined alone,” he said.
Ralston, from Blue Ridge in north Georgia, emphasized Murphy’s role as the creator and preserver of a House independent of gubernatorial control.
But current House speaker also told the tale of his one serious encounter with Murphy, when he was a Senate Republican with an item in the budget that he dearly wanted to preserve. Informed that it was in trouble, he asked what he should do. A conversation with Murphy, who hated both senators and Republicans, was required.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, is there another option?’” Ralston remembered. Walking into Murphy’s office reminded him of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” as Dorothy and her three companions walked toward their first meeting with the wizard. Ralston said his knees buckled – just like Ray Bolger’s.
“But I had a good visit. We had the longest conversation we ever had. I gained a great appreciation for him, and came away knowing more about the legislative process than I’d known before then,” Ralston said. “And I didn’t get that item in the budget.”
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue revealed the first half of the surprise of the day – for anyone with an interest in Georgia political history.
Perdue declared that his introduction to the House speaker came through Murphy’s red-headed son Mike, who – like Perdue – was a football walk-on at UGA in the mid-1960s. Mike Murphy is now a Polk County superior court judge.
Perdue later became a state senator – first as a Democrat. “I believe your dad gave me a little bit of grace because of you. You must have put in a good word for me,” Perdue said.
“Frankly, [Murphy] had a healthy respect for the executive branch, the judicial branch, and, obviously, the legislative branch – except for the Senate,” Perdue quipped.
The second half of the surprise? Roy Barnes was next – and also said that Tom Murphy’s son, his buddy at UGA law school, helped arrange his first meeting with Murphy.
Barnes has a reputation as a story-teller. If this were the 19th century, we would put him on a boat bound for the Sandwich Islands, wait for him to come back – then throw a white suit on him, and set him loose on the lecture circuit.
Barnes was first a Democratic senator, ran for governor in 1990, was defeated, and returned to the Capitol as a member of the House.
”I sat on the back row, next to Bob Lane, ‘cause I knew his daddy. At the time, it was open back there and the press sat right behind you. Now, I am notorious for making smart-aleck remarks that come back to haunt me. I have eaten many of them.”
There was a dispute in the House over whether a seeing-eye dog should be allowed on the floor of the chamber. A local talk radio host, who shall remain nameless, accused the speaker of hating the disabled.
This same speaker once regularly carried his brother James Murphy, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, up a flight of county courthouse stairs so they could practice law together. Continued Barnes, who had already enjoyed a reputation as a successful trial attorney:
”The speaker gets on the floor, he hits that gavel and it gets deathly quiet. He told the story about James, and he literally began to weep. This is what I stupidly said: I leaned over to Bob Lane, and I said, ‘I don’t cry for less than $50,000.’
“It sounded funny at the time. I’d forgotten about the press being right there. It did not sound funny the next day on the front page of the newspaper.”
That next day, Barnes walked into Murphy’s office – the real one:
“He was reading the paper. I walked through and pushed it down. He put it back up and didn’t say a word. I went and sat down in front of him and said, ‘You mad at me?’ And he pulled the paper down and said, ‘Hell, yes, I’m mad.’ And he chewed me out. About an hour later, I was sitting on the floor of the House, and he came back by there, and he put his arm around me. He says, ‘But I still love you.’”
Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus and destined to become the most influential African-American in the Capitol, recounted his first meeting with Murphy, shortly after Smyre’s election in 1974.
Murphy asked Smyre to name his preference for a committee assignment. Smyre said he would dearly appreciate an appointment to the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Smyre, one of the last of Murphy’s circle left at the Capitol, continued:
“[Murphy] laughed, and he said, ‘You know, son, we don’t even allow freshmen to go into that room.’
“I said, ‘What about Ways and Means?’ He said, ‘There you go again. Freshmen don’t go in those rooms.’ He said, ‘What’s your third one?’
“I said Banks and Banking. He said, ‘I don’t appoint freshmen to Banks and Banking.’ He said, ‘But since that’s your third choice, I’m going to give it to you.’
“I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m thinking of going into the banking industry, and that would serve me well to know a little bit about banking.’
“About four days later, he saw me, and said, ‘You’re going to be all right in the House. I found out that Banks and Banking was your first choice. And you gave it to me as your third. You’re going to be all right.”
The final speaker was Tom Murphy’s son Mike. The judge struggled to make it through his address. But he made this final, sharp point about his father:
“If he were here today, he would have reminded us to make the failures of the past our successes for the future. He would have reminded us that we must be engaged, that we must run for public office, we must participate in the political system.
“That we must not avoid our share of responsibility. He would have reminded Speaker Ralston that we should not pass laws against things that people aren’t doing.”
It was a direct shot at some of the ideological legislation Republicans have insisted on since their takeover. The crowd gave a nervous chuckle, and Ralston managed a good-hearted wince. Continued the head of the Murphy clan:
“He would have reminded us that every time a law is passed, somebody’s freedom is eroded.”
The ceremony ended shortly afterwards, as Ralston, using an oversized gavel, banged Murphy’s recreated office officially into existence.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider