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Distractions, demands echo through legislature in session at the state Capitol
Legislators take on another hectic day under the Gold Dome
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, gets last-minute work done from his office prior to a House session in the state Capitol.

ATLANTA — The steps to the entrance of the state Capitol in Atlanta aren’t quite as inspiring as those Rocky triumphantly ascends, arms raised when he reaches the top, ready for the fight of his life. But they do stir a sense of anticipation about what could be.

A city on its own hill, the gold-domed Capitol — its lawns lush with blooming flower beds in the dead of winter, and statues of past leaders serving as ornaments to democracy — has the necessary air of authority to it.

But things inside are more casual than might be expected.

The governor’s and secretary of state’s offices are the first to greet you, and big windows reveal a swirl of people clamoring for attention at their gates: staffers, constituents, and perhaps lobbyists.

The main floor expands beyond there, and entering the rotunda you look up some five stories to see the underside of the dome itself.

A contractor tells you he’s preparing to renovate the ceiling’s facade, stripping off as it is.

There are more busts of famous lawmakers all around, history written in the lines of their sculpting.

But your attention is taken by a commotion down the hall, where students from Georgia State University are gathered.

A young woman then strolls by in a doctor’s white coat. She’s here with others supporting women’s heart health.

The Capitol truly belongs to everyone. It’s where state leaders conduct the people’s business, and where the people come to make their business known.

A day spent behind the scenes here reveals that access is not limited to those in the know.

Whether every message carries the same weight is a point of debate, however.

There are plenty of lobbyists, of course, and they come knocking. They’re conspicuous wearing the required identification, but each declines to discuss their interests here.

They email and text lawmakers, and like a herd at a watering hole, they gather outside the House and Senate chambers, taking phone calls and stopping lawmakers as they pass by.

But just around the corner a line of students gather, some grade-schoolers, others waiting to speak with officials about their university programs.

Somewhere there’s a band playing, or maybe it’s just a loud speaker blasting the radio, and the parade of people grows larger by the minute as the legislative session is about to begin.

At times, this can all seem a bit distracting, even if it is the nature of the territory.

“That’s the job of being a state representative,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “You never know who’s going to come in the door.”

Rogers is huddled in his office a few floors above the chambers, making final preparations before heading down to the House.

He said he meets residents and voters of Hall County, while also hearing from other Georgia citizens, every day at the Capitol.

State politics is no place for shyness, but Rogers describes himself as someone preoccupied with the process of policymaking. He said he’d rather sit at his desk or in committee hammering out the fine points of legislation and reaching compromise than cheerlead for bills on the House floor.

His office, a corner spot with windows looking out on the rooftops of downtown, makes for a good retreat from the many receptions, meetings and events Rogers has to pick between.

Rogers said it’s impossible to reciprocate every invite, but even he can’t get away from the demands of the Capitol on this day.

Soon he’s off to shake hands, last seen moving toward a throng of Georgia State students.

Down in what feels like the bowels of the Capitol, Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, comes into his office with a phone to his ear. It won’t be long before it rings again after he hangs up.

“You have nearly 10 million Georgians depending on you to make the right decision at the right time for the right reasons,” Miller said. “And they put demands on your time, they put demands on your resources, they put demands on your family, they put demands on your business, they put demands on everything you do.”

Looking out his office windows, nearly eye-level with the Capitol grounds, Miller can see people coming and going all day long.

No stranger to the camera, Miller said balance is the key to dealing with all the competing demands.

“I think the distractions are really limited if you stay focused,” he said.

Later during the Senate session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle calls on Miller a few times to introduce the day’s devotional speaker. Miller’s ear is being bent by a few colleagues, so he doesn’t hear that he’s wanted. When he finally gets the message, he bounds toward the podium without missing a beat.

Sessions are not exactly orderly, at least to the outside perspective. But there is a method to the madness, and it often involves as much symbolism as substance.

There is endless chatter inside the chamber as roll calls are made, as lawmakers come to the podium to protest an editorial in a newspaper, and as declarations are given in honor of this person and that cause.

Students pour in to voice their dreams, the gavel bangs again, and back and forth go officials trading whispered information with one another.

Soon lawmakers will break into committee. It’s still early in the process here and much of this year’s legislation is not yet ready for a vote. But things will pick up in the next three weeks as lawmakers prepare for Crossover Day, the deadline to pass bills out of the Senate and Chamber.

For now, Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, is working until the last possible second before every meeting, every House session, every constituent meet-and-greet.

Here on the fourth floor, Dunahoo crams a few spare moments into reviewing his calendar and checking emails from constituents.

The window behind his desk in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building looks out at the Capitol across the street. Dunahoo said he makes the trip to and from at least 10 times a day.

When he appears at the elevator, he doesn’t seem hurried. He leisurely makes his way down to the street and into the Capitol.

Somewhere in the halls, someone has a something to say.

“There are a lot of people in Hall County, as I like to say, checking our temperature gauge,” Dunahoo said.

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