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Colleagues, other dignitaries, bid Murphy farewell

POSTED: January 1, 2008 5:02 a.m.
ATLANTA -- The body of Tom Murphy — once the nation's longest serving House speaker — made its final visit to the state Capitol Friday where current and former lawmakers and other dignitaries gathered to bid the political giant farewell.

As an honor guard of state troopers escorted his flag-draped casket into the House and then to the Capitol Rotunda, Georgia's political establishment paid one-of-a-kind tribute to Murphy, who dominated state politics from the 1960s into the next millennium. He died Monday night at age 83.

"He will forever be remembered as a giant of Georgia politics," said Glenn Richardson, a Republican who became House speaker in 2005. "A giant that is strong, firm, yet still had a gentle hand used to guide many decisions in this state."

Murphy was the undisputed ruler of the Georgia House for more than two decades, controlling committee appointments, presiding over debates and exacting revenge from those who crossed him. A die-hard Democrat, Murphy never shied away from a fight, presiding over the chamber as it changed "from spittoons under the desk to laptops on top of the desk," said Terry Coleman, who succeeded Murphy as speaker.

And through it all, Coleman said, "he remained as constant as the North Star."

"From behind this podium, he championed the underprivileged, he argued for the underdog, and he stood for the infirm," Coleman said. "From this podium, he spurred improvements in rural and urban areas alike. He raised the bar in health care and education, and pushed for economic development and equality."

Elected in 1960, Murphy soon rose to become a floor leader for Gov. Lester Maddox. When Speaker George L. Smith II was felled by a stroke in November 1973, Murphy quickly secured commitments from colleagues to elect him to the post.

"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," he would say.

He selected committee members based on seniority and banned alcohol on the House floor, since television cameras had become a constant presence in the chamber.

He was also credited with cobbling together a coalition of rural whites and urban blacks after the demise of Jim Crow laws, an alliance that would help keep his Democratic party in charge for decades.

Murphy's power reached its peak in the 1980s when he used it to play kingmaker. He helped an obscure legislative protege, Joe Frank Harris, win the governor's office in 1982 and 1986, and helped turn 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 that was growing more diverse and less cohesive with every election. Rural, white males no longer dominated as they had for decades.

In the end, Murphy's once rural west Georgia district transformed around him, becoming increasingly suburban and Republican. His defeat by GOP candidate Bill Heath in 2002 turned out to be the beginning of a Republican revolution in Georgia. Two years later, Murphy's beloved chamber would be in Republican hands.

But party lines didn't matter Friday when leaders gathered to pay respects to a lawmaker whose legacy extends across Georgia. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, former senator Zell Miller and a host of other dignitaries from both parties gathered in the Rotunda, where Murphy's body was to remain through the afternoon.

"I always thought of the speaker as a democrat with a small 'd,'" said Gov. Sonny Perdue, a former Democrat who switched parties before he was elected governor in 2002. "He believed in democracy — not as a system of government that bends to the will of the majority, but one that concerns itself with the individual."

During a somber ceremony in the House chamber, lawmakers watched a short video documenting Murphy's life, and a black ribbon covered the chair where he sat for decades.

Murphy, who long championed a fiercely independent House, often saw the Senate as a rival, and Friday was no different. While Murphy's body was brought to the House, members of the state Senate were forced to watch the ceremony unfold in their own chamber two giant TV screens.



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