Published Tuesday, March 27, 2012
The growing number of personal threats against Georgia lawmakers could be having a quiet influence on the General Assembly.
An unusual array of disparate advocacy groups have bound together to lobby for ethics reforms designed to curb the influence of lobbyists by limiting or preventing gifts to lawmakers and their staff. The coalition spans the political spectrum from tea-party groups to Common Cause and others between those ends. For the second year in a row, they have publicly pushed their proposal as a way to keep voter wishes paramount in legislators’ minds.
General Assembly leaders have opted for increased reporting requirements for lobbyists and stiffer fines for noncompliance. This year, they add to the budget of the policing agency, and let die in committee the ethics-reform bills the coalition supports.
Those same leaders argue they’re not beholden to the well-heeled lobbyists or their swanky dinners and campaign contributions. Public disclosure is the insurance that keeps them honest because their bias would be obvious, they argue.
There is no way to gauge the influence of personal threats.
For instance, Rep. Ann Purcell, R-Rincon, got threats because the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee she chairs held a hearing but didn’t schedule a vote on legislation that would have eliminated the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. She didn’t want to make them known, but a colleague brought them up in a different committee’s meeting where a reporter was present.
Ironically, Purcell is an avid hunter and supporter of Second Amendment rights, and she feels confident defending herself in most situations.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking into the matter, but no arrests have been made. The GBI has some agents specially trained to assess which messages amount to mere venting and which pose genuine threats, and they have arrested people in the past for threatening politicians.
“Sometimes when we interview a person, they are apologetic, and sometimes it gets worse; they get angry at us,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.
Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, got a rash of threats when he sponsored House Bill 87 last year to increase state enforcement of federal immigration laws. Many were crude or offensive, and the legislator, like most of his colleagues, shook the bulk of them off. The GBI looked into some of the most insidious that mentioned his children by name, their schools and his home address.
“Particularly when you start talking about my family and my children, I take them all seriously,” he said.
Asked if he let the threats weaken his resolve, at least on the immigration issue, he shook his head.
“No, I don’t think we can,” he said.
Nevertheless, when legislation came up this year preventing students who can’t prove U.S. citizenship from attending public colleges, Ramsey wasn’t at the lead as he was in 2011.
The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, Ramsey said, is a reminder for all politicians to be wary.
Such concerns have prompted lawmakers who might have shrugged off pointed calls or e-mails in the past to grow fearful. They may not have alerted the GBI, but they may have asked their local sheriff or police chief to send extra patrols by their home or office to assure a wife back home during the legislative session.
“Many of the public officials think they have to put up with it,” Keenan said. “They don’t.”
Not all the annoying communications rise to the level of a threat. Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, has received hundreds of objectionable e-mails and telephone calls over his sponsorship of a bill to limit to 20 weeks after conception the period for an elective abortion.
“People have called my law office and swear at my paralegal,” he said, adding, “I just tell her to hang up.”
Others have been the target of harsh ridicule when their comments have been taken out of context, creatively edited in homemade videos or simply misquoted by out-of-state bloggers. The online hectoring of a citizen activist after her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of a gay-rights employment bill was so vicious that the chairman, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, banned all cameras from the panel’s next meeting. Ironically, that meeting dealt with legislation to increase public access to government.
What’s fueling the rise in nastiness?
The GBI’s Keenan observes that the internet is like automobiles in that it gives people a sense of anonymity and invincibility.
“They’ll send a hateful email to say things they would never say to a person’s face,” he said. “Maybe we should call it e-mail rage like we do road rage.”
Often, the meanest comments come from people outside of the legislator’s district, many from out of state. That’s certainly true of social issues.
“I think this issue is such highly charged because it deals with late-term abortions,” McKillip said. “It seeks to outlaw a barbaric practice.”
Calling a medical procedure “barbaric” tends to fire up his opponents.
Ramsey thinks the level of debate at the statehouse tends to agitate people concerned about particular issues but who receive their information through special-interest groups.
“They are not the ones who are down here at the Capitol every day, but they hear this overheated rhetoric, and they react to that,” Ramsey said.
House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal blames some of the “overheated rhetoric” on the economy.
“I have a sense there is still a lot of personal desperation. We all just sort of live through it, the most unprecedented economic times I’ve ever had to live through. No amount of desperation would atone for any personal threats,” he said.
Going forward, the ubiquitous nature of electronic communications only makes the prevalence of impersonal messages more likely. That’s a troubling trend that the majority leader isn’t sure how to address.
“To think that you might be putting your family at risk is just asking too much of anyone,” he said. “The debate over lobbyists is one thing in the public eye, but I don’t think there’s anyone who could condone the reaction of anyone who is reacting to threats.”
The challenge goes beyond concern for the individual politicians and their families. It goes to the heart of a democratic republic where ideas can be freely expressed, as opposed to developing countries where elected officials brave death just appearing on a ballot.
“If you don’t feel fundamentally safe, you don’t have a basis to do anything,” said O’Neal.
(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)