Originally created 05/10/04

Special session was an extended 'goodbye' for departing lawmakers



ATLANTA -- For a Georgia Legislature losing some of its most experienced players, last week's special session offered an opportunity to say an extended goodbye.

With only one bill on the agenda, lawmakers filled several days of the down time with tributes to departing comrades - some leaving to angle for higher office and some returning to homes and farms to take life a little easier and angle for sport.

"I'm going to miss you, but it's time to go fishing," said 85-year-old Hugh Gillis of Soperton, a soft-spoken but savvy lawmaker who took office before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and is the nation's longest serving state lawmaker.

Gillis, a Democrat who served under 14 governors, chose to retire rather than face another incumbent - Republican Jack Hill of Reidsville - in a district redrawn a few months ago by a federal court.

In all, some 42 of 236 Georgia's state lawmakers - nearly one out of six - opted not to seek re-election this year in one of the biggest brain drains of recent years.

"I don't know when I've ever seen as many veterans leave," said State Rep. Larry Walker of Perry, a 32-year veteran and Democrat who also is retiring. "To some extent it involves reapportionment. Along with that is the changing demographics of the state."

Georgia's population growth has given Republicans a huge boost. When Walker won Sam Nunn's old legislative seat in 1972, Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor's mansion. Now they control only the House. A Republican is governor and the GOP controls the Senate.

Walker said he doubts future lawmakers will serve as long as he did.

"The citizen-legislator wants to give some time, but it's taking more and more time and it's a rougher business," he said. "It's got a mean edge to it. Jockeying for real power gives it a mean edge."

Walker, who was responsible for handling the most important legislation of the past two decades, is leaving in part because of a conflict between his duty to his party - he is a Democrat - and his friendship with Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.

A floor leader for former Gov. Frank Harris for four years and leader of the Democratic majority for 16, Walker lost a battle for the House speakership last year after trying, with Perdue's help, to forge a bipartisan coalition.

Besides Walker, the House will lose 38-year veteran Tom Buck, D-Columbus, the chairman of the budget committee and a key member of the Democratic leadership, and Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, the House majority leader.

Besides Gillis, the Senate is losing Nathan Dean, a Democrat from Rockmart who has been in the Legislature for 42 years and was the acknowledged master of securing state money for projects in his home district.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Newnan, the former House Republican leader, is among those leaving the Legislature to run for Congress. He said it will take a little time next year for newcomers to learn the ropes with so many veterans gone.

"The brain drain comes from the loss of institutional knowledge of the process and knowing who you need to work with on the other side of the hall and who you need to know here to work through the committee system. Those things do take some time," he said.

Rep. Butch Parrish, D-Swainsboro, is seeking re-election but knows the dynamic will be different next year.

"This institution's going to go on no matter what, but there are certainly going to be some big spaces to fill," he said.

Roster of retiring lawmakers:

HOUSE DEMOCRATS:

Ken Birdsong, Gordon

Mike Boggs, Waycross

Tom Buck, Columbus

Scott Dix, Lilburn

Teresa Greene-Johnson, Lithonia

Sally Harrell, Atlanta

Victor Hill, College Park

George Maddox, Decatur

Louise McBee, Athens

Barbara Mobley, Decatur

Nick Moraitakis, Atlanta

Jimmy Skipper, Americus

Jim Stokes, Covington

Doug Teper, Atlanta

Curt Thompson, Norcross

Larry Walker, Perry

HOUSE REPUBLICANS:

Charles Bannister, Lilburn

Craig Brock, Chatsworth

Barbara Bunn, Conyers

Tom Campbell, Roswell

John Douglas, Covington

Chuck Harper, Carrollton

Bill Heath, Bremen

Roger Hines, Kennesaw

Brian Joyce, Lookout Mountain

Warren Massey, Winder

Chip Rogers, Woodstock

Lynn Westmoreland, Sharpsburg

SENATE DEMOCRATS:

Peg Blitch, Homerville

Nathan Dean, Rockmart

Hugh Gillis, Soperton

Carol Jackson, Cleveland

Liane Levetan, Atlanta

Mary Squires, Norcross

Connie Stokes, Decatur

Nadine Thomas, Decatur

SENATE REPUBLICANS:

Rooney Bowen, Cordele

Chuck Clay, Marietta

Mike Crotts, Conyers

Robert Lamutt, Marietta

Tom Price, Roswell

Charlie Tanksley, Marietta

Dick Pettys has covered Georgia government and politics since 1970.