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State’s GOP heavyweights in DOT duel

Governor, speaker at odds over Evans’ seat on board

POSTED: December 27, 2007 5:02 a.m.

A seat on the State Transportation Board is one of the most unique appointments in all of state government.

The members are elected by congressional district, which currently number 13, on a vote by members of the House and Senate who represent a portion of that district. This system gives some legislators more than one vote.

For example, State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, gets to vote in the balloting for the 7th, 9th and 10th district seats, because he represents a portion of counties in each of those districts. Benton represents the southeast corner of Hall County.

The board seats are held by those who are politically connected, including former state lawmakers.
Mike Evans, a former state representative from Cumming, was elected to the 9th district post four years ago. Evans, who served in the legislature in the 1990s, was never a power broker in the Democratic-controlled House, but emerged as a party loyalist as Republicans swept to power with the 2002 election of Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In November, Evans was one of seven members of the board voting to name Gena Abraham as commissioner of the Department of Transportation. He selected Abraham over Vance Smith, a state representative who was supported by Evans' former House colleague, Glenn Richardson, now the powerful speaker of the House.

Evans, who faces a re-election vote when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, is now at odds with Richardson, who is seeking to replace him and another member, Raybon Anderson of Statesboro.
But a University of Georgia political scientist says that Evans and Anderson may simply be victims of a power struggle between Richardson and Perdue.

It looks like the governor and the speaker are on a collision course," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia professor of political science. "We'll have to wait and see which side the lieutenant governor gets on."

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain, made it clear where he stands in the battle for the DOT board during a breakfast meeting Thursday in Gainesville. "We have a Department of Transportation that is in shambles," Cagle said. "We have deficits in various projects to the tune of $4 billion."

But Cagle clearly supports the new commissioner, Abraham, and in turn, Evans. "There is a move afoot, right now, that would try to impede that process. Many state elected officials are trying to unseat DOT board members, like Mike Evans. That is motivated in areas that are counterproductive," Cagle said.

He appealed to voters to contact their lawmakers to support Evans. "You have a DOT board member who has done a good job and is the chairman of the board," Cagle said of Evans.

At the same meeting, a breakfast sponsored by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, complimented Evans, but took issue with Cagle.

"The conditions (at DOT) are much more extreme than (Cagle) mentioned," Rogers said. "The lieutenant governor has his position and I've talked with Mike (Evans) numerous times, but we'll have to see where the chips fall. There are 17 House members and seven senators in the 9th Congressional district."
Although he has appointed a committee on assignments, it is Richardson who has the ultimate say on committee appointments and location of offices, such as the more prestigious locations in the Capitol building.

With those and other benefits at risk, the House members are under pressure to follow the speaker's wishes. The candidate most often mentioned as a challenger to Evans is former State Rep. Stacey Reece, R-Gainesville. Calls to Reece on Friday were not returned.

Reece served two terms in the House and was one of Richardson's "Hawks," a House member who could vote in any of the body's standing committees. He was considered by many observers to be the heir apparent to Cagle, who was serving as state senator.

A publicized story over a bridal shower held by lobbyists was followed by Reece's 11th-hour withdrawal from the race during qualifying week. The former lawmaker denied the bridal shower was the catalyst for his withdrawal from the race. He said he left the campaign at the behest of his children.

The appointment of transportation officials has been the subject of controversy in the past.
Former State Rep. Larry Walker, D-Perry, who now serves on the DOT board, remembers past skirmishes over transportation under the Gold Dome.

"I've been out to the governor's mansion when Zell (Miller) was the governor," Walker said. "He replaced (DOT Commissioner) Hal Rives with Wayne Shackleford."

But Walker, who has been involved in state politics for four decades, said he has never seen anything as contentious as the current battle. "Frankly, it's the governor and Glenn Richardson," Walker said. "I don't think it's as much about the candidates as it is the governor and Glenn Richardson being crossways with one another."

Walker said he is surprised just four years into the Republican takeover of the legislature that the dissension is this strong. He said the current dispute is much more intense than the battles between legendary former Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy and Miller, both as governor and lieutenant governor.

"There was some gamesmanship involved in their (Murphy and Miller's) spats," Walker said. "I sense there is more than gamesmanship involved in the differences between Speaker Richardson and Gov. Perdue."



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