ATLANTA - When Georgia House Republicans wanted to take a Monday off in January to give themselves time to return to Atlanta from President Bush's inauguration, their leader OK'd it with Democratic leader Larry Walker.
But that wasn't enough. They also had to clear it with the new leader of the House's independent caucus, Hinesville Rep. Buddy DeLoach.
When Mr. Walker, D-Perry, announced the scheduling change on the House floor, he made a point of assuring lawmakers that he had consulted with the independents, all one of them.
"People have had some fun with it," said Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, of Mr. DeLoach's new status as the only independent in the 236-member General Assembly. "Both sides of the aisle respect Buddy, so it's been taken in good harmony."
Mr. DeLoach and freshman Rep. Ginger Collins of Smyrna were elected as independents in the fall.
Ms. Collins ran as an independent because she couldn't legally get on the Republican ballot after incumbent Rep. Randy Sauder switched from the GOP to the Democrats in the waning minutes of the candidate qualifying period. Now, she is comfortably within the Republican fold as a member of the party's House caucus.
After three terms as a Republican, Mr. DeLoach chose to run as an independent last year for political reasons. He was worried he could lose his Liberty County seat in a low-turnout GOP primary being held on the same day as a hotly contested Democratic primary for tax commissioner.
"I saw it strictly as an alternative method of getting on the ballot," Mr. DeLoach said. "But my folks at home saw it as a switch to move out of the Republican Party and become a true independent, no matter how many times I tried to explain it otherwise.
"It became apparent to me that, having been elected that way, I was going to have to serve that way. Now that I'm here ... I feel very positive about the move, and I think my constituents feel the same way."
Democrats say the switch wasn't much of a stretch for Mr. DeLoach. The former Hinesville mayor ran for Congress in 1992 as a Democrat, losing the primary in a runoff.
"Buddy really should be a Democrat," said Rep. E.C. Tillman, D-Brunswick, whose House district borders Mr. DeLoach's and includes part of Liberty County. "But if he can't be a Democrat, he at least can be a good friend of Democrats."
Mr. DeLoach joined the Democratic majority at the beginning of this year's session in voting to re-elect House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen.
"I would have voted for Tom Murphy for speaker even if I had been re-elected as a Republican," Mr. DeLoach said. "I really feel like he does an excellent job and, for the most part, is very fair and very upright in his dealings."
Despite his vote for Mr. Murphy, Mr. DeLoach said most Republicans don't seem to have hard feelings about his switch. He said he's made it clear that he holds the same conservative views that prompted him to run for the Legislature as a Republican.
"In his heart of hearts, he is (still) a Republican," said Liberty County Commissioner Sampie Smith, a former county GOP chairman. "We've not lost him."
While both parties seem to want to claim Mr. DeLoach, he said his newly found independence could start a trend in the General Assembly in an era when party loyalty is on the wane.
"I've had several members ask me about the process (of becoming an independent), so there may be others interested in doing the same thing," he said.
Mr. Westmoreland quipped that lawmakers could have other motives besides lack of political allegiance for wanting to become the House's second independent.
"There's been some comments made from some people like, `Well, if I join the independents, at least I'll know I could be vice-chair of the caucus,"' he said.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.
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