When Republicans took the helm of Georgia's government earlier this decade, they promised "A New Georgia."
If last week's vote on the State Transportation Board is any indication, it's not a "New" Georgia; it's more like New Jersey .
In a move that harkens to the underworld in Newark, House Speaker Glenn Richardson has played the role of capo di tutti capi, the boss of all bosses.
On Feb. 1, Mike Evans won re-election to the state Board of Transportation over the speaker's objection. Right away, everyone knew that there would be a price to pay for bucking the man who sees himself as the state's GOP leader.
He's not much of a leader, though. Instead, he's more like the schoolyard bully who expects everyone to do as he says or face the consequences.
Fork over your lunch money or get a punch in the nose. Vote the way I tell you or lose your chairmanship and your office. There's not much of a difference.
Richardson opposed Evans' re-election since last year's vote for DOT commissioner, in which Evans backed Gena Abraham over Richardson's hand-picked candidate, Rep. Vance Smith.
After that vote, Richardson made it clear that he didn't want Evans re-elected. Reading between the lines, one could anticipate that a vote for him would result in lost stature in the House.
Sure enough, soon after Evans bested former Gainesville Rep. Stacey Reece 13-10 to keep his seat, some members began feeling Richardson's lash. While the vote was supposed to be a secret ballot, Richardson applied pressure to identify the six Republican House members who voted for Evans.
For one, State Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, his eviction from a coveted state capitol office was completed before the sun set after the DOT vote. Graves was also a "Hawk," a role concocted by Richardson that is similar to a mob captain; if the vote in a committee is not going the speaker's way, a hawk can go in and vote to tilt the scales in the desired direction.
"This is a low point in the House and this is a dark day," Graves said Tuesday before the House chamber.
On Monday, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, learned that he was being stripped of his chairmanship of the subcommittee on children's health issues. He knew the slap was coming. But Collins, who received dozens of calls and e-mails about the DOT issue, chose to vote with his conscience and his constituency.
We say good for Collins. He did what any good lawmaker should do; vote for the public interest, not to support the political ambitions of a fellow representative.
Two other members of Hall County's House delegation, Carl Rogers and James Mills, have not been targeted by the speaker, so we can only assume they ignored considerable community pressure to support Evans and marched in lockstep with Richardson in order to stay in his good graces. In doing so they have forsaken leadership for political expediency, a fact all should remember come election time later this year.
In addition to Collins and Graves, two other members lost their committee slots: John Meadows of Calhoun and Martin Scott of Rossville.
To strip House members of their stature over a vote that didn't go his way is certainly within Richardson's power, but indicates that he has no intention of using that power wisely and with proper restraint.
The backlash against the backlash has begun as well. Thursday, Hall County Republican leaders asked the speaker to reinstate the four members. The Republican Liberty Caucus of Georgia followed suit. Though the public furor will die out in time, politicians have long memories. Push too hard and someone eventually will push back.
It's important to remember that the House speaker is not elected statewide. He is sent to Atlanta by the people of his district, then chosen speaker by his House peers. A total of 11,700 people from his district sent him to Atlanta (155 more votes than Collins' 11,545) to wield a huge amount of power. Too much, in his case.
If Richardson seeks the governor's office in 2010 as expected, he must prove he can be a leader who brings people together through persuasion, not divide-and-conquer politics. Few Georgians are likely to support a candidate who uses fear and reprisals to get his way.
A potential Richardson foe in 2010 is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has sought to ride the high road during the recent Capitol blow-ups, yet who also seems to be tiring of the speaker's tirades."In this business, you win some and you lose some. I don't know of anything he's won yet," Cagle said of Richardson.
Perhaps that's why the speaker is such a poor loser.
If Richardson's not careful, though, he could face the same fate other schoolyard bullies face. Eventually, those being bullied fight back. If he makes enough enemies, his hold on power could be fragile. House members voted him in; they can vote him out just as easily.
Failing that, the good people of Paulding County can do their part to take him down a peg this fall before his name ever shows up on any of our ballots. Here's hoping they send him a message he'll heed.