Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia Republicans gathered in Columbus this weekend to pick delegates to the national GOP Convention and select some party leaders. They also fired the opening salvos in what is likely to be a long battle between elected Republicans and the grassroots of the party of ethical standards, practices, and enforcement of suspected transgressions. Somewhat surprisingly, one of Georgia’s highest ranking Republicans fired a pre-emptive strike of his own.
House Speaker David Ralston addressed the Convention late Friday afternoon and put his own marker down squarely on the side of the status quo. Ralston warned those listening that attempts to force higher standards of ethics from Georgia’s recent last place ranking were from “media elites and liberal special interest groups”.
A coalition of Republican leaders fired back Saturday morning with a press release demanding an apology from Ralston, strongly condemning his remarks and noting that the matter of ethics was “not a matter of right versus left” but “a matter of right versus wrong”. The release bore the signatures of many Republican leaders including TEA Party Patriots leader Julianne Thompson, Kay Godwin and Pat Tippett of Georgia Conservatives in Action, and Dan Becker of Georgia Right To Life. All of whom presumably were surprised to learn that they were either media elites or leaders of liberal special interest groups.
The Speaker has a strong objection to the gift cap proposed by ethics advocates limiting lobbyist expenditures to $100 per member per “occurrence” – essentially per meal or per trip. In a discussion after his speech, however, he does appear open to shifting the focus of ethics reform from gift caps to independent oversight and enforcement of ethics rules. Currently, the legislature is largely responsible for policing its own members, with the budget of the State Ethics Commission also directly controlled by the legislature. The Speaker indicated he is open to consideration of a structure which would guarantee review by an independent body.
The grassroots of the party appeared unmoved by the Speakers position and passed both a resolution calling for the gift limit as well as placing the matter on the July primary ballot for a non-binding referendum. Voters who choose a Republican ballot this summer will be able to send a message directly to legislators about their feeling on the subject. This will be done at the same time voters decide if they will return incumbents to Atlanta or choose new Republican nominees.
Qualifying for the seats begins Wednesday. By Friday, voters will know how many opportunities they will have to send the message not just through the referendum, but also by voting against incumbents. Despite some wishful thinking to the contrary, one should not get their hopes up for numerous credible primary challenges. Most incumbents will likely not be challenged, setting up a much longer battle to restore elected officials’ fear of voters.
The occasion of the convention set up not only the battle for ethics reform during the next session of the Georgia General Assembly, but from the party itself. One of the bits of news from the weekend is that former Senator Chip Pearson of Dawsonville plans to run for Chairman of the Georgia GOP one year from now when current Chairman Sue Everhart’s term expires.
Pearson formerly chaired the Senate Economic Development Committee. He also simultaneously joined a consulting company advertising “We’re not lobbyists. But we do know who to call and how to get action from top management at Georgia’s companies (large and small), and influencers who work behind the scenes. We know how government works” while occupying that position.
Grassroots Republicans who just sent a strong message that they want stronger ethics and accountability apart from moneyed influencers have as their first candidate for Chairman a man who openly and brazenly sold his access as Economic Development Chairman. If they wish to prove they are serious about higher ethical standards, they must select another.
This weekend’s convention marks a new chapter in the dynamics of one-party rule in the state. Partisans are typically reluctant to criticize their elected officials. Likewise, those whom are elected under the banner are usually prone to give lip service to the goals of the grass roots even while fully intending to bury legislation contrary to the goals of those serving in power.
With the growing influence of the TEA Party within Republican ranks, criticism – and primary challenges – from within are likely to become common place. Watching the elected officials balance their allegiances between the grassroots voters and the well connected financial backers will be a spectator sport for some time to come.