Originally created 01/04/03

The speaker's power



The Georgia Senate has received much media attention of late, since four Democrats, including Sen. Don Cheeks of Augusta, switched parties after Nov. 5 to give the GOP a majority to work with the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

But what about the House? There are big changes in the works there, too. Although the House stays securely in Democratic hands, it will require new leadership for the first time in decades, due to the election defeat of Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, the nation's longest-serving speaker.

Murphy's all-but-certain successor, chosen by the Democratic Caucus, is Terry Coleman of Eastman, for years the influential chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

The public came to believe that Murphy made himself into a powerful speaker. Actually, it was the other way around. The speakership is what made Murphy powerful, second only to the governor.

A sampling of the speaker's extensive clout includes setting the legislative agenda, naming committee chairmen, controlling their assignments, influencing members and apportioning the pork. In this capacity, Coleman will have huge sway over the GOP agendas of Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state Senate.

This points to the necessity for the politically divided government - something Georgia has had virtually no experience with - to cooperate and compromise if there is to be progress in these difficult times. So far the signals are mixed.

Murphy seemed to despise Republicans. He treated them like a disrespected minority and never played ball with them unless it was unavoidable. In a farewell talk to the Caucus, the former speaker urged Democrats to continue the hard line, and Coleman indicated he agreed.

But Coleman, whose reputation is that of a centrist, also said, "We cannot be wedded to the status quo. The people of Georgia elected Sonny Perdue, and they expect us to work with him ... It's mainstream Democrats who in the past got the job done for Georgia, and only by working together can we get the job done in the future."

We hope these words mean Coleman acknowledges, as Republicans must also acknowledge, that progress will depend on elected officials from both parties putting aside petty partisanship for the greater good of learning how to govern under a two-party system. Let's hope the learning curve is small. There's no time to waste.