You could call 2009 "the year of the quitter" in Georgia politics.
It was a 12-month period marked not by the accomplishments of politicians serving in elected office, but dominated instead by the news of people who decided to leave office or drop out of an upcoming election campaign.
One of the first to give it up was Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was assumed by most political observers to be the favorite in the 2010 governor’s race to replace a term-limited Sonny Perdue.
On a sunny day in April, Cagle summoned reporters to a press conference outside his suite of offices on the capitol’s second floor and announced that medical problems with his back and neck had compelled him to abandon his campaign for governor.
There was some truth to Cagle’s litany of medical problems — he later underwent back surgery — but his statement that he would run again for lieutenant governor, which requires a campaign of similar statewide scope as governor, left many people shaking their heads and asking questions that still haven’t been satisfactorily answered.
Another powerful politician who at one time was considered a top contender for governor in 2010 or some future election cycle was House Speaker Glenn Richardson, but Richardson called it quits as well.
He first tried to kill himself with an overdose of drugs in early November, a suicide attempt he blamed on depression stemming from a divorce from his wife and other family issues. After Susan Richardson went on TV and said that Richardson’s problems also involved a romantic affair with a female lobbyist, Richardson was forced to resign both as speaker and as a member of the legislature.
Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, who was in line to replace Richardson in the House’s top job, decided he didn’t want to be speaker after all and indicated that he, too, may resign soon from the Georgia House.
The pressures of the upcoming race for governor forced other elected officials to quit before serving out the full terms of office they had promised voters they would serve.
Eric Johnson, an influential state senator for nearly 20 years, resigned from the Senate in late summer because he said he wanted to devote his full attention to running for the Republican nomination.
Because of the way Georgia’s election laws are written, Johnson was able to leave office while ensuring that the people in his Savannah-area district would still have someone representing them. A special election was held a few weeks after the resignation and Earl "Buddy" Carter was elected in plenty of time to replace Johnson in the Senate for the 2010 General Assembly session.
There was no such luck for those Georgians who voted in 2006 for Karen Handel as secretary of state under the erroneous assumption that she would serve the full four years of her term.
Just three days before Christmas, Handel abruptly announced she was quitting at the end of the year so that she could show she was "all in" for the primary election campaign to decide the Republican nominee for governor.
Handel’s move was understandable. Disclosure reports indicate that she has not been as effective in raising campaign money as her opponents: Johnson, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal. If she remained in office as secretary of state, she would be prohibited from raising campaign funds during the three months or more that the General Assembly would be in session, starting on Jan. 11.
Handel is now free to keep soliciting contributions during January, February and March, but she has also given some of her opponents ammunition they can use in the primary campaign. It is not hard to imagine a debate involving the Republican candidates where Oxendine or Deal turns to Handel and asks: "If you’re elected governor, do you intend to serve the entire four years of your term?"
No matter how Handel responds to that question, her opponent will be able to say that she has already proved she will not honor the most basic commitment a politician makes when running for office.
There’s an old saying that quitters never win and winners never quit. We’ll find out in the 2010 election year if that’s really true.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.