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Orr: Remembering Ed Jenkins, honest, bipartisan, in touch with the people

POSTED: January 8, 2012 12:30 a.m.
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Former Rep. Ed Jenkins

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We lost Ed Jenkins a week ago. But in a larger sense, we will never lose Ed. For his legacy - his exemplary record of accomplishments and legislative successes in the U.S. House as North Georgia's 9th District representative - will remain with us and those who will come after us for a long, long time.

Some who arrived in North Georgia after Ed's retirement from Congress in 1993, and others too young to remember his public service, may not know of Ed Jenkins. But they should. For if you live in North Georgia, in one way or another, your life is better because of Ed Jenkins.

Ed was our congressman for 16 years following his election in 1976. And he was no ordinary congressman. He stood out. He led.

Whether on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, to which he brought the common sense values of his Georgia mountains heritage, or on the Iran-Contra investigative committee, where he earned national acclaim for asking the most penetrating and illuminating questions about the U.S. government's sale of arms to Iran and funneling of the proceeds to Nicaraguan rebels, Ed represented us extraordinarily well.

Much like New Jersey Rep. Peter Rodino, who was not a household name across America until he so commendably chaired the House Judiciary Committee and its Watergate investigation, Ed rose to the occasion in rooting out the facts on the Iran-Contra affair. In doing so, he wrote his name in American history as a defender of constitutional government - and he did it as our representative. To use the old colloquialism, Ed Jenkins "did us proud."

Those who are running now to represent the new Northeast Georgia 9th District will do well to remember Ed's example and the size of the shoes they must fill. Just as he so ably carried the torch handed him by his predecessor - legendary 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum, who Ed had served for a time as chief-of-staff and like Ed called Jasper home - future holders of that seat in Congress inherit a great legacy to be upheld.

Ed Jenkins never surrendered his sound independent judgment to the histrionics and partisanship that often pervade Washington. It is telling that one reporter used the word "dispassionate" in describing his style of questioning witnesses in the Iran-Contra investigation.

Gus Whalen, who as president and CEO of Warren Featherbone Company worked with Ed on legislative matters affecting the textiles industry, used a similar word, "unemotional," in telling me of Ed's diligent and effective work to protect that industry. Gus remembers well how Ed's "keen intellect and solid research on trade and other issues," as well as his holding committee hearings in his district, equipped him to serve his constituents and the nation so well.

No flamboyant headline-hunter or publicity-seeker was Ed - just an uncommonly effective public servant, who got to the bottom of things. With today's extreme partisanship and vitriolic exchanges in Washington, we need all of Ed's bipartisan, respectful manner that we can possibly find.

And Ed never forgot who he represented: not the influence peddlers and loudest voices in Washington, but North Georgians, all of its people, including those without financial means or political influence, who Ed always remembered depended on their jobs for their houses, food and ability to support their families. His hard work and practical, applied intelligence allowed him to anticipate and try to resolve tomorrow's problems before they reached a crisis point.

Ed was working to protect our country's manufacturing base, including workers and owners of textile businesses in North Georgia and throughout America, long before that base and those businesses were eventually devastated by our trade policies.

Abit Massey, as president emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation, says that Ed was a "go-to" representative and strong advocate who sought fair treatment for the poultry industry under the tax laws and export policies. Abit especially recalls Ed's great sense of humor, which with his amiable manner allowed him to earn respect on "both sides of the aisle," and with it the ability to avoid inter-party rancor in getting things done.

Courage also marked Ed's service. Despite considerable opposition, he voted for the Family Medical Leave Act, when some were saying it would greatly damage businesses. His practical insight told him it would do no such thing. It exempted small businesses, and gave employees of larger businesses time off, without pay, to attend to their families' and their own serious illnesses - true family values.

This emphasis on improving the quality of life of his constituents was also seen in Ed's work to protect North Georgia's leisure and recreation venues. As his then-chief of staff, Sammy Smith, points out, Ed fought to protect TVA lakes, Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee National Forest, where Congress named the Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area in his honor.

Even after his retirement from Congress, he continued to serve Georgia, including as member and chairman of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

All of us in North Georgia were so fortunate to have Ed Jenkins as our congressman. While it is improbable that we will see his like again, we can all learn from and emulate Ed's example, and endeavor to be better, less strident, and more civil citizens in this greatest of democratic republics which Ed served so well.

Wyc Orr is a Gainesville lawyer and former state representative.


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