Originally created 02/22/01

Showman takes lead in House



ATLANTA - Whenever Charlie Smith gives a speech to his colleagues in the General Assembly, he has a bag on the lectern in front of him.

The Democratic representative from St. Marys has used similar props since he first ran for the House in 1992. At the end of Tuesday's speech on education savings accounts, he pulled a piggy bank from the sack to represent, he said, the benefit parents would realize from the bill.

The measure passed unanimously.

"Sometimes, it's good to have a dramatic effect in your speech," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. "Some people love charts, but Charlie loves bags."

As floor leader for Gov. Roy Barnes for three years, Mr. Smith can take some of the credit for the fact that every bill the administration has proposed eventually passed, usually without substantive changes. That includes the controversial measure to redesign the state flag.

Mr. Smith reluctantly led the effort on behalf of Mr. Barnes to win adoption of a design billed as a compromise. It was not a fight he would have chosen, he said, because he knew how strong sentiment was in his district for preserving the old design.

Mr. Smith said he approached the task with the memory of advice House Speaker Tom Murphy gave him as a freshman.

"He said sometimes there will be a moral issue when the people are wrong and you will have to do what is right," Mr. Smith said.

Being the floor leader has given him considerable access to power. Even though he hasn't introduced many bills on his own initiative while he has been carrying water for Mr. Barnes, he says his voters benefit from his position.

"The fact that I can talk to the man at the top and have input and try to persuade and talk privately, is very important," he said. "Just being able to have his ear is a great privilege. ... I think the folks back home are pretty proud of that status."

Republicans cite Mr. Smith's integrity as his chief asset.

"I think Charlie has always been honest with me," said House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg. "I think whenever I've asked him, and he's known the answer, I think he's told the truth."

They also say he has unwavering loyalty to Mr. Barnes: never saying more than he should, adhering to political alliances, and enthusiastically spouting the administration's spiel.

"I think he has had some bad product to sell," Mr. Westmoreland said. "But he's done a good sales job."