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Murphy will lie in honor at Capitol Friday

Powerful former House speaker died Monday

POSTED: December 29, 2007 5:02 a.m.
ATLANTA - Deceased Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy will lie in honor at the state Capitol on Friday.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said that Murphy's family had initially wanted only private services but was persuaded that the public would want to pay their respects.

Murphy, 83, died Monday following complications from a stroke three years earlier. He was the longest serving House speaker in the nation's history when he was defeated in his 2002 re-election bid. Murphy, a lawyer and Democrat from Bremen, was elected to the House in 1960 and to the speaker's post in 1973.

"An era in Georgia politics is over," said former Rep. Terry Coleman, who briefly succeeded Murphy, a fellow Democrat, as House speaker. Coleman said Murphy had died just after 10 p.m.

He was the longest-serving state House speaker in the nation when voters in his west Georgia district turned him out of office in 2002. That election would turn out to be the beginning of the Republican revolution in the state, and two years later Murphy's chamber was in GOP hands.

He suffered a stroke in 2004, soon after departing the state Capitol. Friends said his health has been in gradual decline ever since.

Murphy was fiercely loyal to his top House lieutenants. His funeral arrangements will be provided by one of them, former state Rep. Bubba McDonald, who owns a funeral home in Cumming.

Gov. Sonny Perdue praised Murphy's work on behalf of children, veterans and the disabled.

"Speaker Murphy's spirit will forever be a part of the General Assembly and his love for our state should serve as an example to us all," the GOP governor said.

Perdue ordered flags on state buildings and grounds lowered to half-staff until sunset on the day of Murphy's funeral.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle praised Murphy's leadership and commitment to the state of Georgia.

"He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, you could count on his words being truthful. Murphy will mark our history books as a political legend and will be remembered as one who took care of his caucus. ... Speaker Murphy will always be remembered for his service to our great state and commitment to do all he could to provide a better life for all Georgians."

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, first went to the House in 1994 as a Democrat. He said his early notions about Murphy were proven wrong.

"He was always very cordial and respectful to me," Rogers said. "The first time we met, he said, ‘Now, Carl, don't you lie to me.' I said, ‘I won't Speaker Murphy and I ask you to do the same to me.'"

Former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes said that "to a large extent the prosperity we share today is a result of the handiwork of Tom Murphy.

"One cannot look anywhere without seeing the results of his vision - whether it is the interstate highway system, World Congress Center or even MARTA," Barnes said.

Former state Rep. Wyc Orr of Gainesville led an effort to limit the number of terms of the speaker during Murphy's tenure.

Orr had kind words for Murphy on Monday.

"Tom Murphy is one of the great public officials ever to serve the state of Georgia," Orr said. "His honesty, integrity, his caring concern for others and his commitment to the state were unquestioned and unparalleled."

Thomas Bailey Murphy, a lawyer from Bremen, was elected to the House in 1960 and to the speaker's post in 1973.

For more than two decades, he was undisputed ruler of Georgia's House of Representatives, controlling committee appointments, presiding over House debates and exacting a toll from those who crossed him. A die-hard Democrat, he never shied away from a fight.

His power reached its peak in the 1980s when he used it to play kingmaker. Murphy helped an obscure legislative protege, Joe Frank Harris, win the governor's office in 1982 and 1986, and it turned the tide for Wyche Fowler in the 1986 U.S. Senate race.

But his influence began to slip in 1990 when Zell Miller, the lieutenant governor for 16 years, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over a Murphy-backed candidate.

As the decade progressed, Murphy found it increasingly difficult to control a House of Representatives that was growing more diverse and less cohesive with every election. Rural, white males no longer dominated as they had for decades.

Aggressive freshman Republicans, especially, chipped away at Murphy's patience with endless speeches and challenges of procedural rules.

On the last day of the 1994 session, Murphy was so irritated in the final hours that he almost came to blows with Rep. Mitchell Kaye, R-Marietta, because the freshman had helped himself to a turkey sandwich from the speaker's office.

Three days later, he suffered a heart attack.

Plain-spoken and often gruff, Murphy said he wasn't as bad as some made him out to be.

"It's always amused me that people around the state think I'm the meanest man alive," he once told The Atlanta Constitution. "You'd be surprised how many times I don't get my way."

One of those times came during the 1994 session when he waged a failed political battle to make it tougher to place names on a statewide child abuser registry. Murphy vowed to change the law when a state attorney refused to remove his client's name from the registry during a court case.

Murphy was often criticized by some as a throwback to the rural-dominated machine politics of the past. But a former legislator-turned-lobbyist took issue with that assessment.

"Tom Murphy is probably one of the most complex figures you'll ever meet," Cathey Steinberg said in a 1990 interview with The Atlanta Constitution. "You can say he's a Populist, but who gave Atlanta MARTA and the World Congress Center? That's why he's a brilliant politician. Tom Murphy has an ability to sit on the front porch in Bremen and, at the same time, to make sure the World Congress Center passes."

One of the great political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s in Georgia pitted Murphy against Miller, who became lieutenant governor just a year after Murphy took the gavel in the House. Their pitched battles over taxes, transportation department funding and a state lottery set a contentious tone for many legislative sessions.

Once, Miller accused Murphy of burying his bills "in the Murphy mausoleum in a cemetery on the third floor (of the statehouse)." Murphy fired back, "I wish I did have a mausoleum. If I did, I guarantee you there'd be another person interred in it."

The two made amends after Miller became governor, and their relationship thereafter was smooth.

While he ruled the rowdy House chamber with an iron fist, he also had a well-known soft spot for the needy and the disabled that could move him to tears on the House floor.

Murphy grew up during the Depression, the son of a railroad man who also was a Primitive Baptist minister. His hostility to Republicans was born during that hard period of American life as he watched bankrupt farmers leave their land.

"I remember standing on the depot platform with my daddy at the railroad and seeing the freight train go by with a whole family in that boxcar," Murphy told a reporter in 1990.

He went on to call himself a "yellow dog Democrat," meaning he'd vote for any Democrat over a Republican - even a yellow dog. His hero in politics was Harry S. Truman.

Murphy idolized an older brother, James R. Murphy, who died nearly 30 years ago. Murphy's wife, Agnes, died at age 54 in November 1982. The couple had four children.

Away from the Capitol, Murphy worked a one-acre garden at his home in Bremen in West Georgia. He was an avid reader. His favorite books were westerns by such authors as Louis L'Amour and Zane Gray. A photo of John Wayne hung on his office wall.

Murphy was a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II. He earned a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1949. He served on the Bremen school board before winning election to the House in 1960.

In 1967, then-Gov. Lester Maddox chose Murphy to serve as administration floor leader, presenting the Maddox legislative package to the House. Four years later, Murphy was elected by fellow House members as speaker pro tem.

When Speaker George L. Smith II was felled by a stroke in November 1973, Murphy quickly secured commitments from fellow House members to elect him to succeed.

In the end, Murphy's district transformed around him, becoming increasingly suburban and Republican. He was defeated by Republican Bill Heath in 2002. Heath is now in the state Senate.

One of Murphy's last public appearances took place in 2003, when he returned to his alma mater, North Georgia College and State University, where he graduated in 1943.

Murphy's father, without his son's knowledge, enrolled his 17-year-old son in the Dahlonega college. Tom Murphy said it was the best thing that ever happened to him, because of the discipline he learned in the college's corps of cadets.

Murphy was awarded an honorary doctorate from North Georgia and in his remarks encouraged the graduates to stay in Georgia.

"Take our failures of the past and make them your successes of the future," said Murphy.

"Take your wonderful education and your God-given talents to make this nation a better nation and a better world for future generations. I have no doubt in your ability to do this."

The Times Community Editor Harris Blackwood and Associated Press reporter Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.




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