Tommie Williams’ Decision Spotlights South Georgia’s Clout Drain

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

The center of Georgia politics Monday was not in its usual power center of Atlanta, but in rural Toombs County.  The four candidates who would challenge John Barrow for the 12th Congressional District gathered in a full auditorium on the campus of Southeastern Technical College to state their case as to why they should be the Republican nominee to take on an incumbent Democrat wounded by shifting regional political preferences and shifting district lines.

Looking on the debate from near the back of the room was Senator Tommie Williams of Lyons, who earlier in the day announced via email to his senate colleagues and the media that he would not seek another term as President Pro Tem of the Senate.  Having once been thought to be the front runner for the redrawn 12th Congressional seat, Williams has instead chosen to return to the State Senate, but has now also chosen to do so in a lower profile capacity.

His email highlighted a growing concern among other South Georgia legislators, leaders, and voters.  The region which once dominated Georgia politics and has grown accustomed to wielding significant influence at the Capitol has spent the past several years watching the state’s political power shift to metro Atlanta and points further north.

“I would like to remind you that we were only able to take the majority when we won the rural parts of the State” he wrote. “Our caucus needs to keep a balance between rural and metro areas as we choose our leadership team and as we make policy decisions. We have based too many of our decisions on policies that were good politically for metro Georgia but not so good for the rural parts of the state. We can’t be a majority without our rural Senators.”

The State’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor now hail from Hall County, just north of Atlanta.  The Speaker’s home is just north of them in Blue Ridge.  Williams was South Georgia’s highest ranking leader at the Capitol.  House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal of Bonaire now has the highest title of any Georgia leader living South of I-285’s northern most point.

Williams’ replacement will not be clear until after elections are complete.  Primary challenges including several involving other Republican leaders must be settled, along with the November general election.  There is also the matter of settling the ethics charges against Rules Chairman Don Balfour, who now must either defend himself to the Senate or enter into settlement negotiations.

The opening of the Senate’s President Pro Tem position along with uncertainty of the Rules Chairmanship sets up a potential wholesale realignment of Senate leadership.  Add in a credible primary challenge for Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock (who also lives significantly north of I-285) and there is real potential for complete turnover of the Senate’s three most powerful positions.

The cascade of changes for the Senate would likely continue from there, but exactly what form that would take is far from certain.  It was Williams along with Rogers that led the charge on behalf of the Republican Senate caucus to transfer committee appointment power from the Lieutenant Governor to a Committee of Assignments made up of Republican Senators.  The outcome of various primary challenges and Republican caucus elections will decide if this arrangement continues, and if so, under what form.

Williams’ announcement lays down a clear marker that he intends for South Georgia to continue to have a meaningful seat at the table.  While the population of the state has clearly coalesced around the metro Atlanta area, the reminder about the southern parts of the state being the catalyst for the shift to Republican majorities should be heeded.

Issues on which Democrats are basing their resurgence strategy align deeply with South Georgia interests.  The Democratic alternative to HOPE scholarship reform was shown to be far superior for most South Georgia residents than what was ultimately passed.  HB 87, Georgia’s immigration reform bill, was written and pushed by Suburban Atlanta lawmakers over the objections of South Georgia farmers.  Those farmers now claim hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses as a result of labor no longer being available in sufficient supply to pick crops.

Republicans in South Georgia are safe for now mainly due to the current Democratic strategy of showing utter contempt for most social conservative issues.  Should Democrats ever find the tolerance they so often preach about for social conservatives, South Georgia could again quickly be in play.

As such, Williams’ advice should be considered as the new Senate leadership team is chosen.  South Georgia may no longer be driving Georgia’s political bus, but deserves to have a prominent seat for the ride.