Originally created 05/16/02

Quenching hangout



ATLANTA - Anyone who has spent much time under the gold dome of Georgia's Capitol knows where to snag a free Coca-Cola on a hot day.

Tucked away in the corner of Rep. Jack Connell's office is a 3-foot-tall glass refrigerator filled with dozens of cans of the soft drink.

"We try to keep it cold," said Mr. Connell, D-Augusta, who receives the drinks for free from Coca-Cola Co.

During his 34-year career in state politics, everyone from former Gov. Zell Miller to football star Herschel Walker has stopped through for a drink with Mr. Connell, whose role as speaker pro tem makes him the second-ranking member of the House.

However, now that Mr. Connell, 82, has announced he will retire from the Legislature, it's uncertain whether the free Coca-Colas will keep coming.

"It just all depends on who the next speaker pro tem is," said Debbie Lynn, Mr. Connell's secretary.

Mr. Connell has always insisted his office be fully stocked for any thirsty visitors, be they reporters, lobbyists - or even Republicans.

"I've gone there many times," laughed Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. "I don't know how many Cokes I've had."

Since Mr. Connell was elected as speaker pro tem in 1977, his office has been a popular hangout for those involved in state government.

Besides the Coke machine, the office also is renowned for the hundreds of framed photos on the walls chronicling the many visitors who have stopped by the Capitol over the years.

"There's a lot of interesting fashion statements in the photos," said Michelle NeSmith, who worked as an aide in Mr. Connell's office during this year's legislative session. "You can tell what decade you're in by how wide the ties are."

Despite the constant flow of politicos into the office, a few neutral visitors often make their way to Mr. Connell's Coke machine.

Georgia State Patrol trooper Steve Shelton said he runs through for a drink and quick conversation with Mr. Connell's staff on a frequent basis.

"It's a home away from home," he said.

Even Gov. Roy Barnes was known to drop in for drink back in the 1980s, when he served in the House with Mr. Connell.

"We don't see him anymore," Ms. Lynn said. "They have their own Coke machines in the governor's office."

Mr. Connell said he hopes the next speaker pro tem will continue the tradition of using his office as a sort of oasis from the crowded halls of the Capitol.

It's that fondness for social interaction that has earned Mr. Connell a reputation as one of the more gregarious members of the General Assembly.

"Jack has always been a gentleman," Mr. Brush said. "Whether he was arguing a point of view or playing partisan politics, he never let that get personal with him."

The new speaker pro tem will be elected by the House next January, after this fall's elections.

Coca-Cola officials say that as long as the new speaker pro tem wants the Coke refrigerator to remain in the office, they will keep supplying the beverages.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.