Originally created 04/23/04

Party switchers sacrifice posts

ATLANTA - State Rep. Tommy Smith, of Alma, knew there would be some perks and some pains when he decided earlier this week to join the state Republican Party after 26 years as a House Democrat.

On one hand, he feels he's now in a better position to run for re-election in his conservative southeast Georgia district and could be handsomely rewarded if his bold political move helps the GOP win control of the House after this fall's elections.

"It just makes good common sense to me to make the change," said Mr. Smith in a telephone interview from his home in Bacon County.

"The majority of my constituents vote Republican. My philosophy fits very well there. I am a product to some extent of where I grew up."

But Democrats are still in control of the chamber for now, meaning Mr. Smith has already been told to move out of the plum Capitol office he has occupied for more than a decade.

And his chairmanship of the House State Planning & Community Affairs Committee could come to an end any day now.

House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, appoints lawmakers to top positions, rarely considering members of the opposing party for such posts.

When Rep. Ann Purcell, of Rincon, switched to the GOP in March after 14 years as a Democrat, her post on the House Interstate Cooperation Committee was quickly revoked.

Mr. Smith expects a similar outcome in the wake of his decision to jump ship.

AN UNTOLD NUMBER of conservative House Democrats are weighing the pluses and minuses of switching parties this week as the final day to register as a major party candidate for this fall's elections speeds closer.

The last day to qualify for the 2004 elections is April 30.

Some lawmakers are looking back at a previous round of party switching as a barometer for what they should do this year.

Two years ago, Republicans seized control of the Senate after Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, convinced four Democrats to switch parties after his unexpected victory over incumbent Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes.

All four switchers - Don Cheeks, of Augusta; Jack Hill, of Reidsville; Rooney Bowen, of Cordele; and Dan Lee, of LaGrange - were able to keep or receive chairmanships on powerful Senate committees.

Mr. Hill, who is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has seen relatively few problems since he joined the GOP.

"It's like any other decision you make," he said. "There are some folks who are happy and some folks who are not."

Still, Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone said the success enjoyed by the switchers of the 2002 coup won't serve as a good road map for other potential party hoppers because this year's elections come at a different juncture in the political process.

The Republicans who changed parties in 2002 did so immediately after the elections, meaning they were risking political fallout by joining a party that the majority of voters had just rejected.

But such is not the case in 2004 because the switching going on right now is occurring before voters head to the polls, which reduces the chances of any feelings of betrayal or anger among constituents, Mr. Boone said.

"I don't think (switching) is going to be a disadvantage for them," Mr. Boone said. "It may make it easier for them."

FOUR HOUSE DEMOCRATS, including Mr. Smith and Ms. Purcell, have changed parties so far this year. The other two are Bob Lane, of Statesboro, and Carl Rogers, of Gainesville.

That leaves Democrats in control of the House with 104 seats, while Republicans have 75 seats.

A lone Independent lawmaker, Buddy DeLoach, of Hinesville, holds the remaining seat in the chamber and usually sides with the GOP.

Mike Digby, a political scientist at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, said those who switch in 2004 face another risk factor that wasn't around in 2002: new legislative district boundaries.

Because the new districts have yet to go for a test drive with voters, Mr. Digby argues that Democrats who switch to Republican could find it nearly impossible to get their own legislation passed if Democrats are able to hang on to their majority in the House.

"If the majority party keeps its majority status, it's going to do everything it can to ostracize you and make you ineffective," Mr. Digby said of party switchers. "Your power level is going to be substantially reduced."

Augusta antiques store owner Bill Merry said he could vote for a party switcher.

"If someone changes their line of thinking and it comes in line with my line of thinking, I would be inclined to vote for them," said Mr. Merry, the owner of Merry's Trash and Treasures Inc. "I vote for the man, not the party."

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or brian.basinger@morris.com.


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