Leadership determines legislative tone

The leaders legislators picked says a lot about them and the coming two-year term of the General Assembly.
House Republicans made no changes. Most observers figure they didn’t need any. They had success on election day, during the last session passing major legislation and in negotiating contentious bills like the budget and tax reform with the Senate and the governor.
There was one, unsuccessful challenge. Rep. Delvis Dutton of Glennville, who came to office in 2011 after winning a special election, sought to unseat Rep. Donna Shelton of Dacula to chair the caucus. He lost in an undisclosed, secret ballot.
He’s from the tea-party generation, but she’s pretty conservative, too. He just said he wanted more discussion in caucus meetings.
His loss continues the concentration of power in North Georgia. With the exception of mid-state residents House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal of Bonaire and Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton of Macon, the leaders reside upstate.
The Senate Republicans did make changes to their leaders. Staton kept his job, even though he had been on thin ice ever since he was accused of hiding behind a fake name to spread rumors and attacks aimed at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Those who were replaced included Tommie Williams of Lyons who stepped down as president pro tempore, Chip Rogers of Woodstock who passed after four years as majority leader, and Bill Cowsert of Athens who chose instead to run for Williams’ post.
Winning the nomination for president pro tem was David Shafer of Duluth. Other winners are Ronnie Chance of Tyrone as majority leader and Butch Miller of Gainesville as caucus chairman.

Consider how their elections consolidate power. Shafer has been a long-time ally of Cagle, who’s from Hall County like Miller and Gov. Nathan Deal. Chance has been Deal’s Senate floor leader.

Of course, House Speaker David Ralston hails from Blue Ridge, just a stone’s throw from Hall County.

Sen. Buddy Carter of the Savannah suburb of Pooler could have added the most southern voice to either chamber’s leadership, but he lost his bid for caucus chairman.

Having the bulk of the legislative leadership living close enough together to carpool to the Capitol could mean favoritism toward the region they all call home. But remember that two of Deal’s top projects are the deepening of the ship channel in the Savannah River and investing enough in Georgia Regents University in Augusta to make it one of the country’s premier medical schools.

At the very least, it suggests there will be close cooperation. It may not seem possible to exceed last year when Deal’s signature legislation, criminal-justice reform, passed unanimously and his HOPE reforms nearly did the year before. But other bills ran into less harmony, and Deal and Ralston reportedly held off on more ambitious legislation out of fear of discord, mainly in the Senate.

Williams, Rogers and Cowsert had led a faction that stripped Cagle of much of his power in the Senate and gave it instead to a committee of eight. The problem was that the spokesman for that committee seemed to change almost hourly, according to Capitol insiders who complained there was never a way to strike a lasting bargain when one of the negotiators kept changing.

The diffuse leadership also prevented the Senate from instilling party discipline necessary for keeping the troops in line for unpopular votes. Cagle had lost his power in part for his heavy hand in forcing party unity on votes like a tax on hospitals three years ago.

Guess what. The hospital tax is expiring, and the dozens of legislators who ran on a pledge not to increase taxes will need ample discipline to renew it.

Rogers said Deal didn’t push him out; it wasn’t a revolt or criticism of his opposition to the United Nation’s Agenda 21 as some allege. Instead it was a little boy.

He had promised to take his 9-year-old son to New York as a reward for good grades. When they arrived Monday, he had to finish up work. So, Tuesday was all to be devoted to the lad.

“Beginning at 8 a.m. my phone started ringing with caucus/Senate related calls. I received more than 20 calls, which I did not answer,” Rogers said. “I realized what I had been doing for the last four years in leadership had taken away from the most important people in my life. While I was physically with my son, I was distracted by politics. He deserved all of my attention on his day I had promised.”

Williams, who also has young footsteps at home, had reached the same conclusion and announced it at the end of last session.

Now, a new combination of leaders will give their full attention to legislation. And as Shelton said, “Any organization is a reflection of its leadership.”

The image in the reflection is coming into focus, and it looks a lot like a soft-spoken grandfather, Nathan Deal.

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