Whenever I talk to a friend or acquaintance who keeps up with the activities of the legislature, I’m amazed at how often the same question comes up: Is anybody going to run against the speaker?
It seems that everyone wants to know if Glenn Richardson, one of the most controversial figures in state politics, is going to continue holding the powerful position of speaker of the Georgia House — or if there’s someone out there who can knock him off that perch.
In just four years as speaker, Richardson has accumulated an enormous amount of political power. He rules the House with an iron fist, he raises tons of money from lobbyists and lawyers, and he seemingly could pass almost any kind of legislation he wants.
But there are some structural flaws as well: Richardson is the focus of many rumors related to his after-hours activities, and one of those rumors became public when an ethics complaint accused him of having an inappropriate relationship with a gas company lobbyist. He was involved in an embarrassing divorce from his wife, the details of which he is still trying to hide by having the court records sealed.
Richardson’s most noticeable shortcoming is an explosive temper that has drawn him into fights with his fellow Republican leaders in each of the last two legislative sessions. Richardson charged that Gov. Sonny Perdue was "showing his backside" on a tax cut matter (he exacted revenge by overriding several of the governor’s vetoes), and he angrily demanded that Casey Cagle be replaced as lieutenant governor after another tax dispute.
All of that could normally be laughed off by his House colleagues, but many of them have been the victims of Richardson’s vindictiveness — they’ve been damaged by his eagerness to punish lawmakers who step out of line the least little bit.
Until last week, none of the House members unhappy with Richardson’s behavior were willing to step forward and challenge the speaker, but that bridge now has been crossed. Rep. David Ralston of Blue Ridge, a lawyer and committee chairman, confirmed that he will run against Richardson for the speakership when House Republicans caucus after the November general election.
Ralston already is picking up support among legislators from North Georgia such as Tommy Benton, Terry England and Doug Collins, but he knows as well as anyone that it’s extremely difficult to knock off a sitting speaker of the House.
Richardson has a lot of advantages as speaker, including his ability to raise money from lobbyists and power to give committee chairmanships and other perks to legislators he wants to keep on his side. Those are powerful weapons to have in your arsenal, and Richardson knows how to use them as well as anyone who has ever held his job.
Rank-and-file House members know that if they take a shot at the king and miss, the king will exact a terrible vengeance on those who were involved in the palace rebellion. That kind of fear can be very effective at keeping members in line.
Ralston’s entry into the speaker’s race may not be the last move in this political chess match. If his opposition to Richardson seems to be picking up support, you can expect to see other players get into the game.
Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, or Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, possibly could step in at some later stage and run as compromise candidates who could heal the divisions within the Republican caucus.
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, who is talking about running for governor in 2010, could similarly offer himself as a candidate who would agree to serve as speaker only through the two-year period before the next governor’s race.
Fights for the speaker’s position are not uncommon in Georgia politics. During his 29 years as House speaker, Democrat Tom Murphy fended off at least three challenges to his power.
Soon after Murphy first became speaker in 1974, he was opposed by Rep. Al Burruss of Marietta. Another challenge was discussed in the early 1980s but went nowhere. The last serious attempt to topple Murphy came in 1992 when Rep. DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), who’s now the House minority leader, ran unsuccessfully against the speaker.
Murphy survived all of those challenges. Richardson will try to see if he can do the same.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.