ATLANTA -- Gone are the days when senior legislative leaders called the Augusta area home, but the current delegation is gaining influence through personal reputations and seniority.
Augusta residents understandably grew accustomed to significant power in Atlanta in the years when Tom Allgood, Charles Walker and Don Cheeks were in the Senate holding top leadership posts and Jack Connell, Ben Harbin and Barry Fleming held similar posts in the House. Those were also days when the state budget was flush, and the powerful local delegation regularly brought home the bacon.
But Harbin, R-Evans, remains in the House, although he is no longer chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that determines where taxpayer dollars are spent. And Fleming, R-Harlem, is back after giving up his seat in an unsuccessful bit for Congress. While he is no longer House majority whip, he and Harbin still have the connections and political skills developed after years in power. Both have relative seniority in a chamber with 37 freshmen, giving each a shot at a committee chair.
The other House Republican from the area, Barbara Sims of Augusta, is also a few rungs up the seniority ladder. She may be due to chair a minor committee when the assignments are announced in coming days.
She has traditionally focused on passing uncontroversial statewide bills and controversial local ones.
The other local House members are all Democrats and therefore in the political minority. With little influence on statewide bills, Wayne Howard, Earnest Smith, Quincy Murphy -- all of Augusta, and Gloria Frazier of Hephzibah have focused on local matters.
Frazier, though, stepped into the spotlight toward the end of last session as a spokeswoman for the opposition to Republican proposals. Since Republicans have such an overwhelming majority, her new exposure isn’t likely to provide any influence in the current House membership, but it could pay off in a few years if projected demographic trends tip the balance back in Democrats’ favor.
In the Senate, the dynamics are less partisan because the body is one-third the size of the House. Personal relationships matter more there, in most cases, giving Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, greater influence than the Democratic members of the House delegation.
Senate Democrats still don’t win many fights on the floor, but they have better luck in committees and one-on-one. Davis’ background as a Georgia Tech grad and as a minister gives him rapport with Republicans that every Democrat does not enjoy.
Another minister from the local delegation, Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, has been called the unofficial chaplain and conscience of the Senate. Often, he’ll address his colleagues to calm partisan debates and respect both sides of the issue. Having been elected as a Democrat years ago, he has no trouble seeing the logic of both parties.
Besides moral authority, Jackson also brings his connection as one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leaders. That means he speaks for Deal in the Senate, pushing the governor’s bills and giving the governor’s opinion on amendments and legislation offered by others.
It also means Jackson has a regular, private audience with the governor in which he can speak frankly on behalf of interests back home.
Selling Deal on Augusta isn’t difficult since it was the “big city” when he was growing up in Sandersville, and two of his top aides hail from Augusta. Although Deal doesn’t get a vote in the General Assembly, he does make the first draft of the budget, adding considerable funding to Georgia Regents University in his first two versions.
The area’s other senator, Waynesboro Republican Jesse Stone, is starting his second term. He has gained a reputation as being thoughtful, pragmatic and competent.
In his first term, he got six routine bills passed and signed into law, a good record for a freshman senator. He’s likely to get the chairmanship of a minor committee.
Reputations earned in previous legislative sessions, don’t disappear, but the start of a new two-year term of the General Assembly always brings a hopeful atmosphere of a fresh start and bygone disputes of yesteryear. Promises of cooperation echo in the hallways. Officeholders greet each other with smiles, pats on the back and warm handshakes. And the legislative meter is rolled back to zero.
Lawmakers have the opportunity to build on their friendships and good reputations or repair blemishes from previous encounters. New issues lead to new coalitions.
When the gavel falls at 10 a.m. Monday to open the session, 233 legislators will look forward with optimism and expectation that good bills will pass based on merit rather than politics. They’ll inevitably be disappointed at some point, but they at least begin with hope.