Walter Jones Column

Georgia's political dancing chairs commence

by Walter C. Jones, Morris News Service

Ever since U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced his retirement in January, at the beginning of Georgia’s legislative session, lawmakers hoping to move up have been biding their time.

Open Senate seats don’t happen very often, and this one is setting in motion a giant game of musical chairs.

For example, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, is sending signals that he’ll leave his First District congressional seat to run for the Senate. State Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, has made no secret of the fact he intends to run for Kingston’s spot. Carter’s move will prompt state Rep. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, to seek a promotion to Georgia’s upper chamber. Perhaps a Chatham County commissioner will try for Watson’s seat, opening up a spot in local government.

There are likely to be other legislators with eyes on Kingston’s seat as well, setting up additional series of open contests. And similar chain reactions are occurring in other congressional districts, like in the 10th District where U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens, has already announced he’s running for the U.S. Senate and state Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, has announced he’ll reveal his ambitions next week.

Thursday, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, shaved his mustache and traveled to his hometown of Augusta to throw his hat into the U.S. Senate ring, which will trigger more announcements next week from legislators in his district. The next day, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr announced he is running for Gingrey’s seat.

The fact that Chambliss chose to disclose his plans so far in advance gave everyone else on the political ladder time to react. Other retiring senators have waited until just before candidates had to qualify for office, effectively closing out all but a chosen successor.

Despite Chambliss’ January news, the end of the legislative session is a natural time for the next level of announcements for several reasons.

Getting a bill passed in the General Assembly is hard enough under normal circumstances. Of the 900 or so introduced every year, maybe 350 pass. If legislators sense that a bill is being used to fuel a colleague’s political career, they cast a jaundiced eye, even toward proposals they might otherwise support.

Consider Cowsert’s legislation calling for a federal constitutional convention to draft a balanced-budget amendment. He’s heard the speculation that his only motive was to score points with fiscal conservatives in a congressional campaign, but he made the same proposal last year before Broun’s plans were known.

Once a legislator’s ambitions become known, or at least suspected, everything he says or does is scrutinized for ulterior motives, especially by colleagues hoping for the same promotion. Suddenly political allies become competitors looking for ways to sabotage each other without appearing too obvious. The media also couches every quote in political rather than policy terms.

It’s not just rivals who put up hurdles. Groups focused on federal issues will get involved in state legislative matters if they see an opportunity to prevent a philosophical foe from winning a seat in Congress.

Legislators might as well wait for another reason. They can’t raise money during the legislative session by state law, a law they like so much that they want to prohibit fundraising during the session by candidates trying to get in the General Assembly.

Of course, legislators who announce for Congress in the coming days will be subject to these conditions next year when the General Assembly convenes again. Each will have to decide whether the publicity they can earn as lawmakers outweighs the drawbacks, and some will undoubtedly resign instead, triggering a daisy chain of special elections.

The state constitution doesn’t require any state or local officeholder to resign when formally qualifying for another office when the terms don’t overlap.

Timing is everything in politics. One of the most critical skills is reading opportunities. That will be on full display in the days ahead.


Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998.

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