Today’s column in the Courier Herald (Subscription Required)
Whether planning a Super Bowl or swearing in a Governor, there is a certain element of risk planning an event in Atlanta in January. Despite much hard work by Governor Deal’s Inaugural committee, most activities were canceled, and the official ceremony to swear in the Governor was moved inside the House chamber from the capitol steps.
Presiding over this House is David Ralston, Republican from Blue Ridge Georgia, a man who was not supposed to be Speaker. A little over a year ago, it was reported that then Speaker Glenn Richardson had tried a suicide attempt, and a few weeks later, his ex-wife produced documents proving infidelity with a lobbyist. Richardson, who along with a small inner circle, enjoyed house rules that allowed him to stack committees at will, giving him more power over the body than Speaker Murphy had ever dreamed of. Yet his inability to get along with neither Lt. Governor Cagle nor Governor Perdue limited the reach of his power beyond the house, and Senators privately enjoyed the leadership vacuum in the House in the wake of Richardson’s resignation. Even when a new speaker was elected, he had to bring disparate groups together under a new agenda while making needed changes in House rules and operations.
One year later, Speaker Ralston has full control over his body, and with a very successful election and additional Democratic defections, is just a couple votes shy of an outright supermajority – the two-thirds of the body needed to pass Constitutional amendments. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, Republican Senators are still trying to decide how they will operate their body, with changes to the Senate Rules – updated primarily to take away most of the power of the Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle – still being negotiated up to their final vote yesterday.
While Ralston spent last year building consensus on how the House would govern, the Senate and the Lt Governor who presides over it devolved from backroom infighting into a public brawl, culminating in a caucus meeting in Macon where they voted to give Cagle the Mark Taylor treatment – treating Cagle as a Democrat after Republicans just eliminated them from all statewide constitutional offices. The result is a “Committee On Assignments”, which leaves the decision on who chairs committees, and thus, who decides if legislation ever gets to the floor for a vote, not in Cagle’s hands, but in a committee comprised of Senate leaders.
Before the committee could hold its first meeting, Senators began asserting themselves as the one who controls said committee, and the reality of everyone being in charge seems to have resulted in no one being in charge. One of the more recent committee meetings held during the Biennial became heated, and spilled into the hall afterwards with continued heated discussion among Senators. As they bickered, The Speaker passed in the hallway, followed by his leadership team in tow. An observer who caught Ralston’s glance at one of the Senators in the midst of an argument said it all. What a difference a year makes.
Ralston’s team now has a year of experience under their belt, and given the tough year it was, I’m sure it seems to them like it’s been longer. Meanwhile, Deal is just settling into the Governor’s mansion, and the Senate as of Monday’s swearing in had not yet announced their committee assignments.
The Governor and his team face a learning curve. The Lieutenant Governor and the Senate continue to deal with a lack of mutual trust and respect, and new Committee assignments may continue to bruise egos that will have to be soothed.
Yet Ralston walks through the Capitol tall and proud, almost as if he owns the place. For the time being, and maybe much longer, he does.