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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Veteran insiders offer voters tipson how to pick effective politicians

Voters participating in Tuesday’s primary generally faced choices between candidates who agree on most issues, so a pair of former leaders offers some advice on how to distinguish who will become effective legislators from who would only be a blowhard.

Larry Walker and Eric Johnson have been out of the Georgia General Assembly for years, but their insights about talent spotting were honed from long experience observing what kind of freshman has what it takes to pass bills and influence their colleagues.

Walker rose to become House majority leader as a Democrat. Johnson rose to become Senate president pro tempore as a Republican. Both are familiar with the inner workings of senior leadership in their respective chambers and parties, and each served as members of the majority and the minority party.

In separate interviews, the men offered similar observations.

Look for the candidate who has a track record of working with other people.

Accomplishing anything in a legislative body, from a school board to Congress, requires the ability to convince others. It’s a team sport, so to speak.

An executive position like mayor, governor or president offers certain authority to act unilaterally while legislators can only pass a motion, ordinance or bill after getting a majority of their colleagues to agree.

Candidates who make definitive statements about problems they will solve or bills they will pass are trying to fool voters -- and maybe themselves -- into thinking they’ll have more power than they will.

“People who oversimplify issues, I think, is a warning sign, also,” Johnson said.

They must quickly learn that solving the world’s problems around the water cooler or even on the campaign trail is a lot easier than when presented with all the real-life complexities, the men note.

One tip Johnson offers is to select a candidate who has risen to leadership in a service organization like a Rotary club or PTA. That shows they have experience in a cooperative setting. Plus, club members personally know who they are elected as officers much better than primary voters know names on a ballot, making them less likely to pick a jerk to head their organization.

Personal dynamics apply the same in any group, including a legislative body. Loudmouths soon grow tiresome and seldom advance in the General Assembly either.

“They’re not going to put a cocky S.O.B. chairman of the rules committee or appropriations who is going to abuse that power,” Johnson said.

Walker suggests if a voter wouldn’t want to spend a day fishing with a candidate, legislators aren’t likely to warm up to them either.

“In most races, primary or general election, especially in the legislative level on down, the man or woman that wins is the one that’s liked the best,” he said. “It seldom has to do with the issues.”

Humility is a trait both men recommend. Johnson said spirituality of any kind shows a person who has perspective about himself or herself and answers to a higher power.

Walker is a little more down to earth when he says people who become effective in the legislature begin by doing more listening than talking.

“In my time, certainly the person who was willing to work within the system and keep their mouth shut was going to rise up in the system,” he said.

Johnson concedes there is a place in the legislature’s 236 seats for a few doctrinaire stalwarts who refuse to compromise and insist on lecturing their colleagues because, he said, these keepers of the flame provide warnings when straying from party principles. But, he said, that’s not who he would elect to represent him.

“For my representative, if I need a traffic light or to do something, I don’t want someone who is going to go up there and yell at people and make people mad and not accomplish anything,” he said.

Walker says flexibility is required to get anything done. Smart candidates should recognize that and safeguard their options rather than signing pledges with various groups to support a specific stance or oppose others, like tax increases.

Had he signed such obligations as a rookie, Walker said he would have been severely limited once he became a leader in his range of solutions. He admits that he appreciated that more as he gained experience.

“After I sat up there two or three terms, I wouldn’t commit to anything. I’ve got to hear the debate, read the bill, hear the testimony,” he said.

Both men say politicians today face greater pressures. Instant communications forces them to make snap decisions about policy and to subvert their own judgment for the whims of a partially informed populous.

The founding fathers created a representative republic rather than a democracy so that elected officials could study issues with the greater information available to their office, not prejudge everything on the campaign trail, they note. Voters would be wise to recognize that when they select who they want working for them.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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