Originally created 02/03/03

Learning Perdue's style has been job No. 1 for many



ATLANTA -- For many who pound the marble floors of the state Capitol, job No. 1 this year has been learning the style of a Sonny Perdue, a new governor who seems as much at ease lecturing lawmakers on ethics as mugging for TV cameras.

Is he the earnest anti-politician who builds speeches around themes of trust and honesty and says he want to get things done regardless of which party gets credit? Or, is he the cutthroat behind-the-scenes dealmaker who persuaded four Democrats to switch parties in the days after the election, giving his party control of the Senate?

And what about his failed effort in the House Speaker race, when he tried to get a few Democrats to break ranks with their party and support a coalition choice.

To some Democrats, his meddling in legislative affairs is evidence that Perdue's words are inconsistent with his actions.

Perdue "is saying one thing and doing another" when he calls for bipartisanship, said Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, a former Republican.

But Republican Rep. Ben Harbin of Martinez says it's simply a culture clash.

"When you're talking with Sonny and dealing with him, you know you're dealing with someone who believes what he's saying," Harbin said. "This is not a political game he's playing with you, it's not the latest poll. It's what he thinks ought to be done."

And some Democrats agree.

"You don't get to be governor without being pragmatic and without understanding politics," said Rep. Larry Walker, D-Perry, the man Perdue wanted to see elected speaker of the House.

"He was my senator for several years and I've known him all of his life. He is a very principled, very fine man with absolute integrity," said Walker. "If politics and principle clash, principle is going to win out."

In Perdue's State of the State address, he hammered one of his central themes - restoring trust in government. Later, he was photographed sporting a wide, boyish grin as he donned a helmet at an event for motorcycle enthusiasts.

A former high school and college football player, he's caused a flurry of excitement at plenty of sporting events since his election. And when he's not cutting a rhetorical flourish with football metaphors - "Team Georgia," for instance - he's apt to wax eloquent about his passion for flying - "We've got a new pilot in the cockpit."

But some Democrats say he's not letting anyone else co-pilot. They claim the man who depicted former Gov. Roy Barnes as "King Roy" may have his own royal ambitions.

Democratic Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta says he sees a "a self-righteous bent to Gov. Perdue. He believes he's right and if you don't agree with him, you must be wrong or misguided. If Roy Barnes was 'King Roy,' then Sonny Perdue may be 'Emperor Sonny' or 'Sultan Sonny' or something like that."

Of course, a lot of that stems from lingering partisan bitterness over the fall campaign, when Perdue become Georgia's first Republican governor since 1872 in a monumental upset over Barnes.

And now he is trying to roll back some changes pushed by Barnes and other Democrats when they controlled the Legislature and the governor's mansion, including calling for new legislative and congressional election districts less damaging to Republicans.

Walker says Perdue - a former Democrat - has an independent streak that runs in his family.

"That's what made 'em good leaders. His uncle was the school superintendent (in Houston County) for years and my daddy was chairman of the school board. Dave Perdue was a very strong school superintendent and Sonny Perdue is going to be a very strong governor. That's a family trait."

He is known to have a temper and, on occasion, a thin skin. According to one report, he gave a sharp - but private - dressing down last week to Republican senators who challenged his plan to raise liquor and tobacco taxes.

Perdue has kept some of the former governor's top appointees but has replaced others with businessmen who have never served in public office before. That's led to a few missteps.

At one point, the new administration sent word to Central Presbyterian Church across the street from the Capitol that churchgoers would no longer be permitted to park around the Capitol for Sunday services, as had been the custom for years.

Erin O'Brien, Perdue's communications director, said it was all a misunderstanding. She said the administration only asked Capitol police to keep four parking places open on Sundays for the governor's staff. "Somehow that became the governor's office is kicking everyone out of their church parking," she said.

But there also have been some miscues on policy.

Two days after his inauguration, he unveiled budget recommendations which would have resulted in an average $155 increase in property tax bills for many homeowners. Facing opposition even from within his own party, he backed off two weeks later.

"Is it long term damage? Not necessarily. Nobody actually got a large bill," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "No doubt Democrats will castigate him for proposing it, but it's not as damaging as if it came to fruition."