Originally created 05/03/04

Parties vie for Capitol control



ATLANTA - The magic number needed these days to win control of the Georgia Legislature is 91.

That's the number of votes needed to pass most legislation in the House, where the state's struggling Democratic Party is waging the fight of its life against the growing strength of the Republicans, who now control the Senate and the governor's office.

Both parties spent the past week shepherding candidates to the Capitol, where they qualified for this year's state and federal primary elections.

By noon Friday, when the last names were entered onto the ballot lists, both parties claimed they had the candidates to control the House.

"We've got quality candidates, and I think we're going to have a good year," said Bobby Kahn, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

But Republicans pointed out that five House Democrats have switched to the GOP since March.

"Democrats are jumping ship," said Dan McLagan, the spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. "They see the writing on the wall."

Democrats now hold 103 of the 180 seats in the House, and the remaining seats are held by Republicans and one independent who usually votes with the GOP.

Whether Democrats will slip below 91 seats after the November elections is difficult to say at this point, especially since the legislative district boundaries being used in 2004 are new.

A three-judge federal panel threw out the state's old district maps in February, saying they were drawn in an unconstitutional manner by Democrats in 2001.

Republicans had predicted that an untold number of party switchers would show up during last week's qualifying period.

But Tom McCall, of Elberton, was the only lawmaker to cross over during the sign-up. The other four switchers - Ann Purcell, of Rincon; Bob Lane, of Statesboro; Tommy Smith, of Alma; and Carl Rogers, of Gainesville - had done so before qualifying began.

Mike Digby, a political scientist at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, said no switches are likely to occur unless the Republicans can guarantee that such a move would help them claim control of the House.

"It's one thing to switch parties in the primary season, when voters have a chance to see who you are," Mr. Digby said. "But it's another thing to wait until after the election is over to switch."

Such a move could kill their chances of re-election and might cause a loss of power if the GOP is still unable to overthrow the Democrats, he said.

Still, Republicans noted that six district attorneys from across the state left the Democratic Party to run for re-election as GOP candidates, a sign of growing Republican popularity, they say.

They also pointed out that several of the Legislature's longest-serving Democrats aren't running for re-election after the new court-drawn map put them into Republican-leaning districts.

Longtime House Appropriations Chairman Tom Buck, D-Columbus, and Rep. Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, both retired.

"That's as good as gold," said House Minority Whip Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island. "That just reduces the number of seats we need for a majority."

Democrats say the fact that only five conservative House Democrats left their party shows the Republicans' attempted coup in the House is a failure so far.

Many of the rural white lawmakers whom Mr. Perdue encouraged to switch said they simply didn't feel a need to leave the Democratic Party.

"I'm able to do my own thing without pressure from anybody," Rep. Hinson Mosley, of Jesup, said as he signed up to run for re-election as a Democrat.

He pointed out that he shares many of the socially conservative principles promoted by the Republican Party and was among a group of lawmakers who spoke earlier this year in favor of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"It really makes me feel good that I can be a member of all (political) parties," Mr. Mosley said.

A similar war is taking shape on the other side of the Capitol in the Senate. Democrats won the chamber in 2002 with a 30-26 majority over Republicans.

But when Mr. Perdue claimed an unexpected victory over incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, four Democratic senators switched parties, giving control of the Senate to the GOP.

Both parties say they expect to do well in the Senate races this year, though Democrats have lost many of their incumbent senators to retirements and quests for higher office.

"We believe we will hold 33 seats and could win 35 or 36 seats," said House Minority Leader Glenn Richardson, R-Dallas.

Still, Democrats were optimistic about their chances in the Senate.

"I don't sweat bullets; I deal with the horizon," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the immediate past chairman of the state Democratic Party.

"We're going to run a great campaign and see where the chips fall."

NO OPPOSITION

A number of lawmakers made it through qualifying week without any opponents filing to run against them, which means they are virtually guaranteed to return to the Legislature next year unless a third-party candidate mounts a serious challenge.

In the Augusta area, they include these state representatives:

  • Barry Fleming, R-Harlem

  • Ben Harbin, R-Evans

  • Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta

  • Quincy Murphy, D-Augusta

  • Pete Warren, D-Augusta

  • Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta

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