This has not been a happy holiday season for Republicans who hold the reins of power at Georgia’s capitol. One after another, embarrassing scandals have thrown a harsh light on the ethical shortcomings of the state’s political leaders.
The divorced wife of House Speaker Glenn Richardson went on TV and confirmed that, yes, those rumors you had heard for the past three years were true. The speaker had a "full-out affair" with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist while he was sponsoring legislation that would benefit the gas company.
It didn’t take long for pressure from within the House Republican ranks to force Richardson to step down as speaker. The second in command, Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, at first indicated he would step up and serve as a long-term replacement for Richardson.
Three days after saying that, Burkhalter abruptly told his colleagues he had "changed his mind" and wasn’t going to run for speaker after all.
Shortly after Burkhalter’s exit, a Carrollton newspaper and an Atlanta TV station revealed that Rep. Mark Butler, R-Carrollton, had an affair that lasted more than two years with a woman who worked as a lobbyist for the University of West Georgia.
When Butler learned that his girlfriend’s job had been eliminated, he got on the phone with a university official and warned him that he "had ticked off a whole political party" by dismissing the lobbyist. (In fairness to Butler, he was unmarried during his relationship with the university lobbyist.)
An Atlanta TV station then aired a sizzling report about Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the Republican frontrunner for governor, attending the 2007 and 2008 Oscar award ceremonies in Hollywood while an Atlanta doctor paid the expenses.
Oxendine’s expenses on those junkets included a room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, limousine service, and meals at restaurants like Spago’s. The Atlanta doctor who picked up the tab for the trips, by the way, had also asked Oxendine’s insurance department to help him in a dispute with a health insurance company.
After all of that bad publicity, which Democrats will mention at every opportunity during the 2010 election campaigns, you had to figure that at some point the Republicans would catch a break. That may have happened last week when House Republicans held a caucus to nominate the replacement for Richardson as speaker.
The two leading contenders for the position both had some personal baggage in their backgrounds.
Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, while he was the real estate attorney for Gov. Sonny Perdue, was deeply involved in the passage of legislation in 2005 that gave Perdue a $100,000 tax break on some earlier property dealings. When that bill was up for its final vote in the House, O’Neal didn’t bother to tell legislators that the measure had been amended in committee to give Perdue that tax break.
Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had some major tax problems of his own a few years ago caused by an embezzling employee in his law firm. Ralston ordered a forensic audit of his books and then paid the government the delinquent taxes he owed.
Faced with a choice between O’Neal and Ralston, House Republicans picked Ralston to be the new speaker.
"It’s a change message," Ralston said after the vote. "It’s not business as usual any more, and I think people will appreciate that."
Ralston said he will make some changes in House rules and committee assignments that may slow down, even if they don’t stop entirely, the parade of scandalous events.
He even went so far as to say: "We going to have to put the lobbyists and the special interests in the background."
If Ralston is serious, that could mean an end to many of the freebies that legislators have been receiving from lobbyists, such as expensive trips to exotic locales or nights on the town during General Assembly sessions. For those of us who’ve been observing the behavior of this crowd over the past five years, that would truly be a drastic change.
Shortly after Ralston was nominated to be the next speaker of the House, the old speaker, Richardson, was seen running away from the capitol building with a TV reporter and camera crew in hot pursuit. That was a very appropriate symbol of the changes that took place last week.
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.