Originally created 11/07/02

Legislators look for next moves in wake of upsets



ATLANTA - Political maneuvering was the order of the day at the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday, one day after voters threw Republicans and Democrats into a tizzy by creating a divided state government.

House Democratic leaders jockeyed for position in the wake of the unexpected defeat of Speaker Tom Murphy, the longest-serving speaker in the nation. At the same time, Senate Republicans were busy trying to recruit Democratic colleagues in a bid to take over the upper chamber.

"If you change parties the day after the election, I don't know if the voters would look at that favorably," said Sen. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville, one of the GOP's targets, who said she has no intention of switching to the Republicans.

The behind-the-scenes intrigues erupted in the wake of Tuesday's shocking upset of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes by former state Sen. Sonny Perdue, who in January will become Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years.

Mr. Barnes' defeat leaves Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor as the state's highest-ranking Democrat. But Tuesday's results also have Mr. Taylor presiding over a Democratic caucus shaken by the loss of three seats to the Republicans and the upset of Majority Leader Charles Walker of Augusta.

With the Democrats' edge in the Senate down to 30-26, the shift of just two seats would bring the two parties even, although Mr. Taylor would be able to break ties. Other conservative Democrats eyed by Republican leaders reportedly include Sens. Don Cheeks of Augusta and Dan Lee of Lagrange. Mr. Taylor, however, is confident that he can hold the ranks.

"I feel real good about the conversations I've had," the lieutenant governor said Wednesday afternoon after phone calls with several targeted lawmakers.

"Every one of these senators has accomplished great things for their districts as Democrats, and they were elected as Democrats."

Even if Republican leaders can't persuade any Democrats to make the switch, they could form a coalition with Democratic conservatives that could get its way with bills on the Senate floor.

"Mainly, we are just asking people to sign up and get on board, so we can work together," said Senate GOP leader Eric Johnson, of Savannah.

Meanwhile, three House Democratic leaders are in the running to succeed Mr. Murphy as speaker. The candidates are Majority Leader Larry Walker of Perry; Terry Coleman of Eastman, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee; and Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the Democratic caucus chairman and chairman of the state Democratic Committee.

Vying for speaker is nothing new for Mr. Coleman. For the past decade, he's been lining up supporters for the day when Mr. Murphy, now 78, left office. He just didn't think that day would arrive so soon.

"I thought the speaker had pretty well worked out his problems over there," said Mr. Coleman, referring to local issues in Mr. Murphy's west Georgia district that had threatened his re-election bid two years ago.

House Democrats will meet Nov. 14 to choose a new speaker and fill out the rest of the chamber's leadership. Their Republican counterparts elect their leaders for the coming two-year term Tuesday.

House Republicans didn't fare as well as their Senate colleagues, losing one seat to the Democrats, who now control the lower chamber by a margin of 106-73, with one independent.

But Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, said Democrats should have done much better because they were in charge of last year's legislative redistricting and drew maps designed to favor Democratic candidates.

"For them to come out as poorly as they did showed the voters were angry," he said. "The Democrats need to rethink what they did with (redistricting)."

Indeed, Mr. Perdue has made redrawing the maps one of his top priorities for the General Assembly. But the new governor is expected to have a tough time getting the proposal past Democrats. Mr. Harbin said he will probably have to rely on his newfound powers.

"He'll have the final say on all bills," Mr. Harbin said. "If (Democrats) want a good working relationship, they need to be fair about this and let the people of Georgia have fair maps."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.