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Crawford: Financial hardships have busted up legislature

POSTED: August 1, 2012 1:00 a.m.

The crash of 2007-08 that torpedoed the American economy has given us many hard-luck stories to tell.

I’m sure we all know friends or relatives who had to give up plans for early retirement or sell their house (if they could find a buyer) to raise money to pay medical bills. It’s been a depressing time for everyone.

It’s no surprise that during this economic downturn we have also seen the early departure of several members of the General Assembly, including lawmakers who had accumulated significant seniority and political clout.

Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, resigned from the House in 2009 after 17 years as a lawmaker, where he had become chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Smith was named commissioner of the Department of Transportation, but that job only lasted two years. He was replaced as commissioner in 2011 and his family-owned real estate management company later filed for bankruptcy.

Rep. Mike Coan, R-Lawrenceville, who ran a construction business and was also a committee chairman, left the legislature in the summer of 2010 when Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him administrator of the state’s Subsequent Injury Trust Fund.

Rep. Mark Williams, R-Jesup, quit the Georgia House in late 2010 when Perdue named him to replace Chris Clark as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.

Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, rose to the position of majority whip during his final terms in office, but he bailed out on the General Assembly last year when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him as assistant state treasurer.

Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Clarkesville, an airline pilot who flew B-1 bombers for the Georgia Air National Guard, stepped down from the legislature when Deal picked him to be the state’s adjutant general.

Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, who served as banking committee chairman during his House tenure, became another legislative casualty last year when Deal named him to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, also left the House last year when Deal appointed him director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.

Rep. Michael Harden, R-Toccoa, stepped down in May to accept a job with the state Department of Community Affairs.

It is interesting to note that these appointments involved legislators who described themselves as conservatives. I heard several of these politicians proclaim, while they were in the legislature, that state government was getting too big, so the solution was to cut bureaucratic jobs and reduce government spending.

These small-government advocates left elective office to take high-paying jobs with state government. Their salaries are financed by the taxpayers and their employment depends upon the governor maintaining or even expanding the current level of government spending.

Another interesting development is the perception among voters of how business failures reflect upon a candidate’s fitness for public office.

It used to be that if you had business problems, it would be used against you in a political campaign. Your opponent would argue, “if he can’t run his own business successfully, why should we trust him with the taxpayers’ money?”

That issue doesn’t seem to hurt candidates anymore.

We saw this in 2010 when it was reported that Deal’s personal finances were so shaky he might have to file for bankruptcy. The voters elected him governor anyway.

When Tom Graves ran for Congress that same year, it came out that he and state Sen. Chip Rogers had defaulted on a $2.2 million bank loan. Graves and Rogers were still elected to office.

In 2011, when a special election was held for a Georgia House seat, one of the candidates was Chuck Williams of Oconee County. Williams was president of a local bank that went under and one of his opponents raised the issue of the bank failure during the election campaign. Williams was elected anyway and has no opposition in his race for a full term this year.

I don’t bring up these incidents to make any moral judgments. The economic downturn has caused financial misery for almost everyone I know.

It is just interesting to me how the hard times have changed the way people look upon those they elect to public office. You could almost say that where Georgia politics is concerned, failure is not only an option; it’s an advantage.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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