Originally created 07/25/99

Senator's clout will be missed



ATLANTA -- The mail-fraud conviction of Diana Harvey Johnson could leave 111,000 people in Thunderbolt, Garden City, Port Wentworth, and parts of Savannah without a voice in the state Senate next year, and Chatham County without one of its most powerful advocates in Atlanta.

A member of the Senate leadership team and a lawmaker with a reputation for bringing home money for Savannah projects, Miss Johnson's suspension from office could leave a void for Chatham County during the 2000 General Assembly session.

"Diana was effective. She could get things done," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "She was reliable, dogmatic and very persistent."

"Diana was very articulate and very forceful about her legislation," added Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, president of the Senate. "She knew our process, and she knew how to be effective in it."

Some say Miss Johnson could be a political bully at times and was quick to take credit publicly for bringing Savannah budget goodies.

But she also was the delegation's only committee chairwoman, and she had the ability, with the ear of Senate leaders, to get a little extra for Chatham.

"She was a powerful voice for Savannah and had seniority, and both of those will be missed," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah.

Miss Johnson was convicted last week of five counts of mail fraud in what prosecutors argued was a scheme to funnel state grant money through two tourism groups to her consulting company.

She was suspended with pay after her indictment in March. Once convicted, she was automatically suspended without pay.

However, Miss Johnson is appealing the conviction. If she doesn't resign her Senate seat, she will remain under suspension until all appeals are exhausted or the conviction is reversed.

IN THAT CASE,

it's unlikely her district will be represented during the 2000 legislative session, which begins in January, two months after she is scheduled to be sentenced.

If she resigns, it will be up to Gov. Roy Barnes to call a special election.

Several names are already circulating in Savannah about who might run to replace Miss Johnson. They include Reps. Dorothy Pelote, D-Savannah, and Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, along with former Rep. Regina Thomas, who narrowly lost to Miss Johnson in last year's Democratic primary.

"It's a very serious matter for the people of Savannah," Mr. Taylor said. "We don't need to go through the next session with that seat vacant."

If it is, it will mean more work for Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, and the rest of the Chatham County delegation.

"Certainly, given the size of Savannah-Chatham County, there are a number of people who can lend assistance," said Attorney General Thurbert Baker, a former legislator from Decatur. "The bottom line is, it's going to always hurt when you don't have a representative there who is supposed to be there."

Mr. Johnson has made it clear he won't turn away his suspended colleague's constituents looking for help, and he is already involved with some issues in her district.

Still, Mr. Johnson knows he'll need help.

"As a member of the minority party, there is no way that I can fill that void," he said. "Our House delegation and the community leaders with ties to Mr. Taylor and Mr. Barnes will have to help. I do not believe they will let Savannah suffer."

Among those community leaders is former Sen. Tom Coleman, who served with Mr. Barnes in the General Assembly, was appointed this year to the governor's education reform task force and is a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

A LIST OF MAJOR

funding concerns in Savannah always includes the ports and harbor, which regularly get infusions from the state for improvements and repairs.

However, that hasn't been a particularly difficult sell in recent years because governors and legislative leaders have been convinced of the economic importance of Georgia's ports.

For instance, Mr. Barnes called for $31 million in bonds for Savannah Harbor and Savannah River navigation channel projects in January even before the General Assembly session opened.

"I would hope we would never have a governor and an appropriations chairman who don't understand the importance of the ports," said Rep. Anne Mueller, R-Savannah, chairwoman of the Chatham County delegation. "We'll get money for the ports. I don't think that will be a problem."

Neither will local legislation in the Senate. If Diana Harvey Johnson's seat remains unfilled, Eric Johnson will decide local legislation on his own in the Senate, according to Frank Eldridge, the body's secretary and rules expert.

Although Miss Johnson's influence on the budget panel will be missed, Chatham County has four other seats on the House and Senate appropriations committees. However, all four lawmakers -- Eric Johnson, Ms. Mueller, Reps. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, and Burke Day, R-Tybee Island -- are Republicans.

OTHERS IN THE DELEGATION

also have been successful at getting funding for local projects through the budget committees.

Ms. Pelote is among those who isn't overly concerned about losing Miss Johnson's clout.

"We will have the services of Eric Johnson if we need a senator," she said. "All those portraits on the walls of the Capitol, those people had served at one time or the other. Do you hear anyone talking about them?

"It's most unfortunate this has happened, but what can you do? Life goes on. We will survive. Nothing will be lost."

Ms. Mueller said, "Everybody in the delegation is unhappy we lost one. But the judicial system has spoken and we have to respect it. Nobody is indispensable. We will move on."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.