Can Coleman establish Murphy's law?

By Tuesday, Georgians could learn how strong House Speaker Terry Coleman truly is.

They should find out whether Coleman's Democrats can stand toe-to-toe with Gov. Sonny Perdue, or whether the caucus will be a fragile bunch easily fractured along racial lines and incapable of forging an agenda.

Voters will also get a pretty good idea of just what sort of Democratic Party will emerge from the ashes of Roy Barnes' gubernatorial defeat. Will it be a party capable of a fight on progressive principles, or will it become the Republican-lites, a group able to muster little more than rhetorical flourishes. The outcome should influence how much support the Democrats get from minorities in '04.

And all this will become clear not by a battle Coleman fights against Perdue. Instead, it comes down to predatory lending and a struggle within the Democratic caucus itself.

For weeks now, legislators and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor have been struggling over changes to the Georgia Fair Lending Act. Those changes stemmed from recent decisions by agencies to stop rating the state's mortgage-backed securities over fears of litigation stemming from the lending law.

On one side you have more consumer-minded lawmakers and much of the legislative black caucus trying to preserve key components of an act that protects elderly and unsophisticated borrowers from unscrupulous lenders. On the other side, industry-backed legislators, Rep. Johnny Floyd, D-Cordele, chairman of the House Banks & Banking Committee, and Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, have championed industry-penned legislation that removes those components.

From the perspective of many black caucus members, the House leadership has already twice sold them out. First, on Feb. 4, a substitute bill was supposed to be offered to Floyd's bill once it hit the House floor.

It wasn't.

Then on Wednesday of last week, a number of Democrats on the House Banks & Banking Committee — including black caucus member Ron Sailor Jr., D-Decatur — joined Republicans in backing a substitute bill offered by Ehrhart. This came after black caucus members and the House leadership had spent as much as 30 hours devising compromise legislation that preserved some of the consumer protections of the lending law.

Many caucus members seemed wounded by the vote. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who has worked steadfastly to maintain protections for borrowers, was apoplectic.

"The Democratic Party is the party that looks out for regular people," he said. "This morning, it was looking out for the banks."

Later in the afternoon Wednesday, Fort could be seen animatedly arguing with Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, in one of the Capitol's main hallways. Fort repeatedly said: "We had a deal."

But House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, disputes that claim, and says the Banking Committee vote was not a Democratic caucus vote.

Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, a member of the Banking Committee who participated in the negotiations with the House leadership, tells a different story.

Black caucus members wouldn't have stayed in the meeting without a deal, she says. "There's no doubt about that."

If Fort and Sinkfield are right, it leaves two unpleasant possibilities for the downstate troika of Coleman, Porter and Majority Leader Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus: Porter was either covering for Coleman's inability to control Democratic caucus members or the House leadership was not dealing in good faith with black legislators.

Off the record, one prominent House black caucus member says many black lawmakers are ready to "throw down" over the issue, a feeling seconded by a number of legislators. And with nine members of the caucus — omitting Smyre — sitting as committee chairs, they could bring the already sluggish session to a virtual standstill. On Friday, some black caucus members stymied a routine procedure that protects legislation from amendments.

This row shouldn't come as a surprise to House leadership. Before Coleman was elected speaker over Rep. Larry Walker, D-Perry, in January, the black caucus made clear that predatory lending was one of its three most important issues for the coming legislative session — the flag and re-districting being the other two.

So on Friday when Smyre held a vote in the Rules Committee to send Ehrhart's bill to the House floor for a vote, black caucus members, as well as Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, took the near-revolutionary step of voting against sending it to the full House.

It still passed, but by late Friday afternoon, it was pulled back again after negotiations with House leadership. Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, said Friday that the full Democratic caucus was set to discuss the issue Monday to try to come to a consensus. A vote could be held as early as Tuesday.

If the bill had made it to the floor Monday, it wouldn't have been pretty for Coleman, Brooks predicted. The speaker was told, "If they bring [Ehrhart's lending bill] to the floor, it will be total chaos. The Republicans will be sitting back gloating and waiting for us to self-destruct."

Still, many members of the black caucus were cautiously optimistic Friday that a compromise could be worked out, and they were surprisingly understanding of the tremendous pressure being applied to many small-town Democratic lawmakers.

So the fate of the bill stands to be the first true test of Coleman's strength and ability. It may also help determine how much support Democrats get at the polls from black voters.

"To hold a coalition together, everyone has to realize that there are certain things that you have to give on," Sinkfield says. "There is nothing left to give on the consumer's part.

If we let the industry gut the bill, I think the Democratic Party will suffer."