We can wave goodbye to another General Assembly session as legislators head back to their home districts, most of them planning to run for another two-year term as part of the circus under the Gold Dome.
This year, as in all even-numbered years, there were several lawmakers who decided to call it a career, as far as elective politics go. In some cases, taxpayers and advocates of clean government can heave a sigh of relief at the decisions to retire. There are a few legislators, however, who made a contribution to the greater good during their years in office and will be sorely missed.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton, is one of those people. He got his start in politics by putting up campaign signs in 1956 when his father, Bill, ran for a Hall County seat in the state House of Representatives.
“I thought, ‘How many people even know who my dad is?’” Williams said. “It turned out that a lot of them did.”
Bill Williams went on to represent Gainesville in the House for 18 years. Roger Williams represented his own Northwest Georgia district for two stretches in office, initially as a Democrat and later as a Republican.
Williams was a jovial, good-natured legislator who provided some balance and common sense in that back corner of the House chamber where he sat amidst a pack of fringe-element extremists. One of his final accomplishments was to work for passage of a bill that finally gave voters the chance to decide whether they could legally buy alcohol in grocery and convenience stores on Sundays.
For his efforts in dragging Georgia into the 21st century, Williams deserves our thanks.
Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, comes from a family with a distinguished history in politics. Her grandfather was a legislator during the early 1960s and her father, Bill Stuckey, was a congressman from Middle Georgia for a decade.
Benfield is a kind-hearted person who could always be counted upon to speak up for the interests of children, families, and the downtrodden. She annoyed the House leadership to no end by persistently questioning the wisdom of passing tax breaks for corporate lobbyists at a time when the state was cutting the budget for public education.
Benfield also nettled the leadership by recruiting Democratic candidates to challenge Republicans in House races. During the reapportionment session last year, she was drawn into a virtually unwinnable district and decided to leave the legislature on her own terms.
“I decided I could do more with my talents than just push the ‘no’ button and give minority reports,” Benfield said. She will become the executive director of GreenLaw, a law firm that files litigation to compel the enforcement of clean water regulations.
Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, upholds a long legislative tradition of “wild men” who are willing to do or say anything during debate to get a point across. His willingness to mix it up always made the powers-that-be very nervous.
Hatfield is part of the birther contingent that continues to believe, against all evidence, that Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen and should be thrown off the election ballot.
He also has not hesitated to speak up when he thought taxpayers’ dollars were being funneled into the pockets of lawmakers’ friends and business cronies. When a bill was sneaking through the House last year to provide huge tax giveaways to developers, Hatfield denounced it during floor debate and called it what it was: “legalized extortion.”
The leadership got him as well during reapportionment, placing Hatfield into a difficult district where he was paired off with a tea party incumbent, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine.
Hatfield will leave the House but he could yet return to the Gold Dome. He will run to replace Greg Goggans in the state Senate, and the prospect of Hatfield doing battle with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and the Senate leadership next year is delightful to contemplate.
There are other good people who won’t be coming back next year: Lynmore James, Sistie Hudson, Tommy Smith, Elly Dobbs, Amos Amerson, Bob Hanner, Roger Lane, and others.
It is sad to say goodbye to them, but they’ve recognized it is time to get on with the rest of their lives. Best wishes to them all.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report at gareport.com, which covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.