Originally created 02/23/03

Cheeks fires up Capitol



ATLANTA - Don Cheeks, Augusta's senior senator, is blunt. And a plain-spoken chairman of a major Senate committee is going to be a lightning rod for controversy.

His candor flared up Wednesday while he was leading a hearing of the Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee before an audience of lobbyists, reporters and citizens waiting to testify.

Gov. Sonny Perdue had just set a deadline of Feb. 28 for passage of a complicated and controversial bill about mortgage lending, and Mr. Cheeks lashed out at his vice chairman, Sen. Bill Stephens, who also happens to be Mr. Perdue's floor leader.

"I'm not going to be directed by the governor," Mr. Cheeks said, turning characteristically red in the face as his anger built.

"I've said that to the governor's lawyer, and I'm saying this to you - I don't have to be chairman. I'm still a senator, and I listen to the people. I don't like deadlines."

Mr. Cheeks' clash with Mr. Stephens and Mr. Perdue is ironic because he switched parties to give Republicans control of the Senate after the new governor's election. But the veteran Augusta lawmaker admits to bullheadedness - or, as he prefers, convictions.

"If I have convictions that a bill is harmful, I will do everything to expose that harm," he said at his office in the Capitol's basement. "I'm going to do that tomorrow to a dear friend of mine."

His approach means he often opposes some of his biggest campaign contributors - bankers - while doing favors for people he has clashed with. For example, his version of the mortgage-lending revision pleases consumer groups more than the financial interests that contributed about $7,000 to his last race.

And he's introduced a bill on peeping Toms for Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig, with whom he's had a running spat in the media in recent weeks.

Capitol insiders say Mr. Cheeks is always sincere when he apologizes for his frankness but never minces words when he's angry.

"You know how Don is. He's not bashful," said Charlie Watts, a lobbyist for the Community Bankers Association of Georgia.

The committee he heads has always handled consequential bills. This year, though, it has some doozies.

The mortgage bill is supposed to fix problems that resulted from a law enacted last year that aimed to prevent predatory lending. Dozens of lobbyists from all facets of the mortgage industry and consumer groups have repeatedly called on Mr. Cheeks to change a word here or tweak a phrase there.

He said the demands of the 14-hour days and constant conversations with lobbyist over this one bill have meant he's still on the phone late into the evening.

Mr. Watts, who was the chairman of the House banking committee a decade ago when Mr. Cheeks was also a member of the lower body, said his former colleague is persistent.

"'He gets the facts. And I'm going to tell you he's a little bulldog," Mr. Watts said.

On the other side of the issue, at least there's agreement on that, if nothing else.

"This compromise that Senator Cheeks worked out is a hard-fought compromise," said Kathy Floyd, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of AARP, the retirees' lobby.

Mr. Cheeks, who isn't a banker, says it's his job to learn both sides of the issues that come before his committee. And the lobbyists say that even if they don't agree with the outcome, they know they at least got a fair hearing from him.

"Anyone can get in to see him at any time. He listens to all sides," said Mo Thrash, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of Georgia.

In addition to presiding over the predatory-lending debate in the Senate, Mr. Cheeks also is pushing his committee to send a contentious bill to the full Senate that would outlaw payday loans - small, short-term loans at triple-digit interest rates.

He says he's been trying for years to put "those loan sharks" out of business, and observers say he'll have just as big a fight this year.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or wjones@morris.com.

CHEEKS AT A GLANCE

COMMITTEES:

  • Banking and Financial Institutions, chairman
  • Finance, vice chairman
  • Transportation, secretary
  • Appropriations, conferee
  • Reapportionment and Redistricting
  • BILLS SPONSORED:,

  • Woman's Right to Know Act, requiring a 24-hour waiting period before abortions

  • Child Care Facilities Act, regarding insurance coverage

  • Peeping Toms

  • Amending the Georgia Fair Lending Act

  • Payday Lending, outlawing short-term, high-interest loans

  • A "housekeeping bill" for the Department of Banking