Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On the first Friday in August, just days after a bruising primary for Republicans that saw voters rebuke most T-SPLOST proposals and demand tougher ethics laws, Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams introduced his slate of Senate leaders for the 2013 cycle. The introduction caught some by surprise. After all, these positions aren’t usually anointed from a Senate Leader who is stepping down. Caucus elections won’t actually occur until sometime after the November election.
Yet select Senators who would later be asked to ratify these selections were called in to meet their new leadership team. The protocol was…a bit unusual. Senator Judson Hill, a former appointee of Ronald Reagan who was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 2004, was told he should talk to the panel that included four freshmen about what committees he would like to serve on.
Williams also used the day to inform the Governor’s office of the Senate’s new leadership. The Governor, having some knowledge of how and when such elections occur, seems to have not taken the slate as seriously as Williams would have liked. The meeting ended abruptly, and – according to some nearby – loudly.
Last week, the Senate Republican Trust held its annual fundraiser at Barnsley Gardens in Adairsville. While the Senate Republicans were officially meeting in North Georgia, a large number of them were actually meeting with the Lieutenant Governor in Atlanta. The mere existence of such a meeting says that the dynamics of the Senate leadership are rapidly changing. The fact that those in attendance won’t even confirm that such a meeting happened says even more.
During the past two years of fighting between the Republican Caucus and the Lieutenant Governor, both sides liked to leak their information frequently and freely. Neither wanted the other side to first frame their argument to the press. The fact that many who once voted to take power from the Casey Cagle right after he was re-elected are now willing to return at least some of that power in exchange for “peace” demonstrates that 2013 is likely to be very different in the Capitol’s upper chamber.
The fact that they’re largely quiet about it signals the deal appears done, though there is still over a month to campaign and just less than half of the caucus has served less than 2 years. The freshmen do not have the long relationships with their peers that would signal strong alliances. Votes may shift and re-shift, keeping this interesting up until the final vote.
It looks now like there are opponents for most if not all of Williams’ slate, though those who will challenge are said to honor caucus tradition and eschew a “slate” of their own. Still, a reasonable observer could see votes breaking between two distinct philosophies of leadership. Williams’ hand-picked successor nominee for President Pro Tem is Bill Cowsert. It appears that current Caucus Vice-Chairman David Shafer will take the nod over Governor’s Floor Leader Ronnie Chance to run for that position on behalf of the “peace” coalition. Chance, who is or was also seeking that post, is said now instead to challenge his longtime political ally Chip Rogers for Majority Leader. This too is in flux, with each’s final position still somewhat uncertain.
Cecil Staton will run for re-election as Majority Whip, with freshman Charlie Bethel having the backing of Williams for that position. Butch Miller will stand for the position of Caucus Chairman, versus Williams’ pick of Lindsey Tippens.
The (non) slate that will oppose Williams’ slate is said to be confident in their majority, but will not discuss details. Yet it is clear that the Senators who have remained loyal to Cagle and Cagle himself are comfortable with the selections. As such, Cagle is likely to receive at least some of his powers back to appoint committee chairmen and otherwise exert leadership within the Senate. What most are only willing to characterize as a “collaborative” approach has details that have either yet to be worked out or are being held close to the vest of a select few.
The alternative leadership that appears to have united the Cagle loyalists with the non-status quo caucus members also would exhibit close ties to the Governor’s office. Miller, along with Chance, is also a floor leader for Governor Deal.
Staton’s inclusion is perhaps the most visible sign that fences have been mended with Cagle and his supporters. Emails circulated by a “Beth Merkelson” advocating against Casey were later traced back to Staton’s IP address, though Staton continues to deny involvement with their creation. The episode created a great chasm within the caucus that appears to be ready to be put behind most as the Senate prepares to move forward.
Williams decision to put a slate together to unify the Senate for clear leadership and direction seems to have achieved that goal. It just may have done so for those that will now stand in opposition to that slate. The alternative candidates bring a broader definition of unity to the table, as their ties to the Lt. Governor and Governor’s office seem to suggest. Should their numbers hold true, it looks like the Senate will resume a close working relationship with the Governor and Lt. Governor’s office come January.