Originally created 02/05/01

Legislators await impact of flag flap

ATLANTA - With the fate of Georgia's flag resolved after a divisive six-day struggle in the General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the debate don't seem to have the stomach to continue the fight.

Republican leaders, who repeatedly complained of deal-making by Gov. Roy Barnes to grease the compromise that led to legislative approval of a new flag, aren't inclined to search for evidence of such tradeoffs in the upcoming budget process.

Their Democratic counterparts aren't talking, at least publicly, about using their power over redistricting to punish legislators who sided with the opposition.

It's also unclear whether the conclusion of the flag flap will have long-term repercussions for the state's business climate. In keeping with the adage that you can't prove a negative, it's difficult to speculate how the absence of a threatened economic boycott will affect the state's corporate recruiting efforts and tourism income.

During Tuesday's Senate debate over the flag bill, Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, suggested Mr. Barnes was making offers of judgeships and promises of pork projects and support for pending bills in exchange for a "yes" vote.

But by the end of the week, with the legislation signed and the first copy of the new flag flying over the Capitol, Mr. Johnson was more interested in addressing pressing issues facing Georgia than taking out a magnifying glass to find the alleged budget deals.

"I think this is not an issue that will have repercussions internally," he said. "We're not running out a bunch of press releases to Democratic districts. Everybody's saying, `Let's get back to health care and education reform."'

"Anybody who sold their vote, whether it was for a police car, a wing for a college or whatever ... that's something they'll just have to live with," added House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, who made the same claims of horsetrading during the flag debate.

While denying that deals took place, Democratic leaders said they were gratified that the Republicans are ready to move on.

"It's over," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "And I think the people who were adamantly against changing (the flag), except for eight people in the Senate, are through with the flag issue."

As for this summer's special session on redistricting, Mr. Walker said Democratic leaders aren't in a position to punish Republicans who voted against changing the flag.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, noted that many GOP lawmakers who opposed the bill represent fast-growing areas dominated by Republican voters, making it difficult to draw them out of their seats.

"There's not a whole lot the Democrats can do, no matter how they carve it up," he said.

On the other hand, Dr. Bullock said Republicans from middle and south Georgia who voted for the flag bill could be in a position to benefit should Democratic leaders choose to reward them with favorable district boundaries.

Some of those flag-change supporters could use all the help they can get. Groups loyal to the former flag and its Confederate battle emblem are vowing to take their revenge at the polls next year.

"There's just deep-seated hurt and anger against anybody who voted against the South," said Charles Lunsford of the Heritage Preservation Association, which was among the groups that raised thousands of dollars to fight the flag bill, a source of money that now could be channeled toward campaign donations.

But Mr. Johnson said the experience of South Carolina shows that the flag issue isn't necessarily a showstopper for lawmakers' political careers. He said only two legislators in that state lost their seats last fall because of their votes to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol dome in Columbia.

Although a statewide poll late last year showed strong opposition among Georgians to changing the flag, only a small portion of the electorate is made up of single-issue voters, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

It's also far from certain whether last week's vote will have a major impact on the state's economy, despite the boycott fears among business leaders throughout Georgia.

Thomas Reed, the CEO of Huston, Reed & Associates Inc., a Hilton Head Island, S.C.-based company that recruits computer companies for Savannah, said no prospect have turned him down specifically because of concerns over the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's flag.

"What I don't know is when I promoted a business for sale in a state with that controversy, whether people didn't respond because they didn't want to be involved in a state with that attitude," he said.

Economically, Georgia might have emerged a winner from the General Assembly's resolution of the flag controversy.

Politically, it's the governor who comes out of the flap clearly better off than before, Dr. Black said.

"He's united the Democratic Party and done very well by the business community. A potential source for campaign funds for Republican candidates is not there," Dr. Black said.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.


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