An all-too-public chapter of Glenn Richardson’s unraveling personal life and political career came to the only possible conclusion Thursday when he stepped down as speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives.
Richardson recently admitted that he has been treated for depression and attempted to commit suicide. Published reports last week from an interview with his ex-wife indicate a spate of erratic behavior and potential conflict of interest in an alleged tryst with a capitol lobbyist.
We don’t need to recount all the details, but whether they are true or not, it would have been difficult for him to get past it and carry on business as usual. Other state Republican leaders saw the same handwriting on the wall and tried to lead Richardson in that direction, a hint he finally took.
It was clear that Richardson could no longer serve his party, the legislature or the state with the cloud of his personal life hanging over him. House Democrats were seeking to investigate whatever ethics violations he may have committed on behalf of the lobbyist with whom he was said to be involved. That would have derailed any attempts to push a meaningful agenda when the legislative session begins in January.
Such transgressions should serve as a harsh lesson to other lawmakers who often don’t seem to see how their own ties with lobbyists and supporters can undermine their ability to govern responsibly for the sake of the electorate.
The House speaker has a powerful pulpit from which the person wielding the gavel sets the legislative agenda for the hectic 40-day session. The strong-armed style was honed by one of Richardson’s Democratic predecessors, Tom Murphy, who used the post to persuade (some might say "bully") members of both parties, even governors, into seeing things his way.
Richardson was all too eager to do the same as the first Republican speaker in modern times, shepherding his new majority with carrots and sticks, mostly the latter, and unafraid to butt heads with the GOP’s top two office holders, Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. And woe be to the legislator who opposed him.
Richardson’s tactics earned him criticism and fostered many enemies, including some within his own party. He survived a challenge as speaker earlier this year, but seemed somewhat chastened and toned down his combative style during the last session. He was thought to be a top contender for governor in 2010, but as his personal problems mounted, he seemed less inclined to pursue that next step.
Now he stands humbled and human, a figure worthy of compassion, not the scorn he once invoked. It is our sincere hope that Richardson can overcome the demons and put his life back together, personally and professionally.
The speaker’s post now falls to Mark Burkhalter, the speaker pro tem from Johns Creek, who will begin the session as head of the chamber but will come up for election in the House when it convenes.
In the months to come, lawmakers must tackle the state’s struggling economy and dwindling tax revenues. Legislators also must devise a water policy in light of the federal court ruling against Georgia over use of Lake Lanier for a water supply for metro Atlanta and North Georgia. The state has a little more than two years to come up with a workable solution that can earn Congressional approval or risk losing half of the water taken from Lanier and the Chattahoochee River.
And the Assembly still faces many of the same topics that come around every year: Transportation, easing the gridlock of traffic in and around Atlanta and other metro areas; economic growth, attracting new industries to replace those lost in the recession; and education, finding a way to get Georgia out of the bottom five in most national standards in a time when extra funding is not available.
And if that’s not enough, all members of the legislature, along with all elected state officers, are up for re-election next year. That means they will be raising money for their campaigns and seeking to curry favor with plenty of legislation designed to impress voters more than solve problems.
For the legislature to meet these challenges effectively, it will need a skilled, steady hand in charge. Perdue is term-limited and entering his final year in office. Cagle is seeking re-election to his post but his influence is primarily in the Senate, over which he presides.
The state House needs a strong new speaker, one with pockets full of political capital to spend on these and other issues. He or she must rally members of the majority party to devise sensible plans for the economy, education, transportation and water, while keeping Democrats in the loop to avoid divisive floor battles. The ideal choice would blend the steely hand of a Murphy or Richardson with the deft touch of a consensus-builder who can forge a governing coalition.
Whether Burkhalter or someone else is the right choice, it is a key role at a critical time for our state. Georgia’s top leaders must come together to address the state’s problems with energy and resourcefulness, and a willingness to put political gain aside long enough to forge lasting solutions to our problems.
It’s a lot to ask, but it needs to be done. The gavel now passes into new hands. The person who inherits it needs to pound some sense into a legislature that has left us too often discouraged with the results.