HALF OF WAYNE Garner's unpredictable mind is telling him to run for statewide office. The other half is telling him just to run.
He's the most famous unelected bureaucrat in Georgia, maybe the only person who could turn the dead-end job of prison commissioner from a career-killer into a launching pad.
Yet, he's also the target of serious misconduct allegations in a pending federal lawsuit, faced with mounting calls for his ouster led by the Atlanta editorial pages. ("If my 5-year-old could read, I'd probably already be gone," Mr. Garner, a funeral director by profession, says with typical graveside humor.)
As a state senator, Mr. Garner was known as a moderate consensus-builder - so moderate that he left the General Assembly for an executive-branch job when his Carroll County district took a hard right-wing turn.
His image at the Department of Corrections is another matter entirely. There, he's Wild Wayne, the burly ex-cop in the black jump-suit who has gleefully joined "goon squads" on 14 prison shakedowns in search of weapons and drugs.
IF A FEDERAL inmate-rights lawsuit is to be believed, at least one of those raids - last year at Hays State Prison - went dangerously overboard. One lieutenant has been suspended after admitting he beat prisoners without provocation, and has accused Mr. Garner of condoning the excessive violence.
The normally glib Mr. Garner turns somber when questions of the Hays episode arise.
"I have never witnessed, in any of these shakedowns, the use of force that is not necessary to control the situation," he says in measured tones. "When you go into a violent institution or a particularly violent cell-block, you may have have inmates that will revolt or rebel, and you may have to use more force than you normally would.
"I certainly do not regret the use of shakedowns as a management tool ... It is still a management tool, and I would not hesitate to order one today at 1 o'clock if we had information that it was necessary. But we knew when we started these, there would come a time when they wouldn't be as necessary."
THE SHAKEDOWNS ARE the most visible symbol of the get-tough mentality that Mr. Garner was hired to instill.
His predecessor, Allen Ault, was a widely respected criminologist with a doctoral degree. But critics came to believe his style was too analytical, not to mention insensitive to budget realities.
No danger of that with Mr. Garner, a shoot-from-the-hip manager who makes no bones about whose side he's on -- taxpayers and crime victims -- and who the bad guys are.
Since taking over in December 1995, he has used his political skills to broadcast the message that prisons are less "fun" than they used to be.
Many of his changes are symbolic attention-grabbers -- four-mile walks in place of weight rooms -- but more quietly, Mr. Garner is making the prison system into a laboratory for out-sourcing of services. Teachers and legal-aid lawyers on the state payroll have given way to outside contractors, and three privatized prisons are soon to rise in South Georgia.
MR. GARNER BRISTLES at the hostility of civil libertarians who want him fired, because prisons are a measurably safer place -- for workers and for prisoners -- under his discipline. Attacks are down, yet so are inmate grievances about their treatment.
He recounts being called to the scene of a stabbing at Lee Arrendale Correctional Institution his first week on the job, the victim a youngster minding his own business who got caught up in gang warfare.
"That has been the first and last inmate shanked and killed since I have been here," he said, still troubled by the episode. "We inherited this administration after three riots, countless millions of dollars in damages ... Every security expert will tell you, you cannot shake them down or inspect them enough."
Still, Garner's enthusiasm for the public-relations combat of his job is visibly battered.
Though only 46, he surveys the landscape and sees his Senate contemporaries fading away - the latest his close friend, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, who looked battle-fatigued when he pulled out of next year's race for governor as the frontrunner.
"I think all of us burned out before we got where we were going," he said wistfully, thinking back to the time when he and Lt. Gov. Howard were part of a post-Watergate class of firebrands. "All this crap I'm going through -- 10 years ago, I would've loved it. But you get to the point where you say" -- and here he banged his forehead with the heel of a hand -- "what am I doing this for?"
Republicans think Lewis Massey's decision to leave the secretary of state's job for the governor's race gives them a legitimate shot at sweeping every statewide office in Georgia -- if that dang Tommy Irvin would just decide one century as agriculture commissioner is enough. The chairman of the utility-regulating Public Service Commission, Stan Wise of Cobb County, is expected to announce his bid for secretary of state shortly, joining former GOP candidate Charles Bailey, who ran unsuccessfully in 1994.
The outgoing secretary of state is being discounted as a lightweight in the 1998 race for governor, but his pollster claims the numbers show otherwise. A survey released by Cooper & Secrest Associates indicates Mr. Massey is better-known among Democratic primary voters than his opponents, Labor Commissioner David Poythress or state Rep. Roy Barnes. (Opponents note with suspicion that the poll was produced just days after Mr. Massey's political patron, Lt. Gov. Howard, quit the governor's race and Mr. Massey got in - suggesting Mr. Massey benefited from some advance notice.)
The writer is Morris News Service Atlanta bureau chief