ATLANTA -- Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson was dealt a stinging political defeat Friday as members of the legislature from the 9th Congressional District re-elected State Transportation Board Chairman Mike Evans to a five-year term.
Later, legislators from southeast Georgia also voted to let board member Raybon Anderson of Statesboro keep his seat.
Evans and Anderson were targeted by House Speaker Glenn Richardson last year when they voted to make Gena Abraham the new commissioner of the state Department of Transportation over state Rep. Vance Smith, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.
After delivering short speeches, Evans and Reece both walked to the back of the Senate chamber and stood side by side, awaiting the decision. Meanwhile, the lawmakers scrawled their choices on a secret ballot.
When the results were announced, a relieved Evans thanked members of both chambers for the support, a nod to the fact that at least six House members voted in his favor.
"It was a very close vote," Evans said. "We've got a champion in the commissioner that's there day to day, that's intent on making things run. I'm glad because I want to be a part of these great changes."
The fight over the positions was seen by many as a proxy battle between Richardson and Gov. Sonny Perdue, who had nominated Abraham.
With 23 members of the delegation present, Evans defeated former State Rep. Stacey Reece, R-Gainesville, by a vote of 13-10. Reece was recruited by Richardson for the election, which is voted on in caucus by members of the General Assembly from the respective congressional districts. One member, State Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, was absent, however, the rules require a majority of the votes in the caucus, meaning that Evans needed all 13 votes in order to win.
His re-election came as a surprise to many House members, who conducted a test vote behind closed doors on Thursday. They predicted that the seven state senators in the caucus would vote for Evans, who was supported by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. The lone Democrat, Rep. Charles Jenkins of Blairsville, also was expected to vote for Evans.
In the test vote, five house members voted for Evans, which would have resulted in an overall vote of 12-11. However, one of the members apparently changed his mind on Friday and voted for Evans.
Richardson had promised Republican House members that there would be repercussions for votes for Evans. Friday afternoon, the speaker stripped Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, of his position as a "Hawk," which gave him voting power on any House committee. Graves was also evicted from his office in the State Capitol.
"The speaker made that decision and the House leadership supports him," said Clelia Davis, a spokeswoman for Richardson.
State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he is expecting more political fallout for those who supported Evans. "It's over," said Collins following the vote. "I'm glad it's over. This has been an awful process."
Two lawmakers openly supported Reece. State Rep. Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega, nominated Reece and Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, seconded the nomination.
Amerson said Evans had not communicated with legislators. "It was a matter of being left out of the loop," Amerson said. "I decided I would look for somebody else and that's where Mr. Reece came in."
Benton, a second-term representative, served with Reece during his first two years in the House. He said he had been bombarded with phone calls and e-mails in support of Evans. "This was one of those things that is not a pleasant experience," Benton said.
The battle was also a showdown between Richardson and Cagle. Cagle had openly campaigned for Evans, asking a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce breakfast in December to support him, which they did through a resolution passed by the organization's board of directors.
Cagle said Evans and Anderson in voting for Abraham "acted out of principle and they were falsely accused." He expects the House lawmakers who defied Richardson to be punished, which he said is "very troubling."
"In this business, you win some and you lose some," Cagle said of the speaker. "I don't know of anything that he's won yet."
House leaders responded by listing some initiatives Richardson helped usher through the legislature, including tort reform, new restrictions on where sex offenders can live and a strict immigration law.
"That's leadership. That's what's important," said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen. "The House is more concerned with policy than internal politics, and Georgia wins on those issues."
Reece offered a conciliatory tone in defeat. "I fought a long, hard fight," Reece said. "It was a privilege to be here and it was a great opportunity. I've told (Evans) that I support him 100 percent."
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who was elected by the caucus to chair the election, was relieved that the voting was over. "It needed be done today and over today," said Rogers, who had feared that the process might have to be extended. "Mike Evans is our friend, he's done a good job. The incumbent always had an advantage because he's been out in the district," he said. Rogers said Evans was supported in Gainesville.
"We heard from the people back home, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, the county commissioners and the city commissioners. This is what they wanted."
Evans said he was particularly grateful for early support from Hall County.