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News - Mighty Murphy

Sweatin' it out on the speaker's plantation

Start carving another notch in the old gavel.

After winning re-election in the tightest race of his 40-year political career last fall, House Speaker Tom Murphy returned to the Gold Dome this year for yet another season of heavy-handed domination and sucker-punch partisanship.

Murphy made at least one concession to new realities, bowing to Gov. Roy Barnes' emerging power in allowing Barnes' flag-change initiative to reach the House floor. Unwilling to cross the governor or reverse his own longstanding opposition to changing the flag, the speaker remained cagily mute throughout the process. Murphy's silence spoke volumes.

Aside from Barnes' ongoing ascendancy, this year's session was business as usual for Lord Murphy and the serfs of his House fiefdom. Trouble is, business as usual under Murphy can be painful to watch and even more painful to endure firsthand. Feudalism is funny that way.

They say you can learn a lot about a powerful man by regarding how he treats those on the low end of the power scale. Down on Murphy Manor, the lowest of the low are, to be sure, Republicans. And the Democratic speaker's routine abuse of his chamber's GOP minority testifies to his power, his partisanship and, ultimately, his pathetic pettiness.

Just how wide is the gulf between the ruler and the ruled in the House? Consider, for starters, the speaker's office budget of $480,793 per year. With Murphy having 106 members and GOP Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland having 73, the House is divided roughly 3 to 2 in favor of the Democrats.

Doing the math and realizing that the minority caucus is 69 percent as large as the majority, you might expect the GOP leader's office budget to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $330,000. But you'd be wrong. Way, way, way, way wrong.

Turns out, you'd be in the wrong neighborhood, wrong city, wrong state and wrong hemisphere. Because the minority leader's actual office budget is just $13,052 — or less than 3 percent of the speaker's.

The wildly disparate budget numbers don't amuse Westmoreland, but he can't help but smile at the absurdity of it all. In a typically wry understatement, he tells me, "You don't have to be a math expert to see that, proportionately, there's a problem."

In addition, there's the office situation. Murphy's palatial digs are just off the House floor, a long stretch of good-sized rooms. And that's fine. He is, after all, the speaker.

The minority leader's cramped quarters, by contrast, aren't even in the Capitol. Instead, his office is across Mitchell Street, through the lobby, up the elevator, down the hall, around the corner, way in the back. In fact, his office is as far from the door of the Legislative Office Building as you can be and still be in the building.

With a modest conference table too big for an even more modest meeting room and two staffers stuck working at a credenza, Westmoreland would like more space. More than that, though, he'd like to be across the street. "I just feel like the minority leader needs to be in the Capitol," he says, "I think that's fair." And he's right.

Lastly, there are the secretaries. Today, every single House secretary serves at Murphy's pleasure. He hires them, fires them and, as one wag told me, a lot of them tend to come from his district. This bizarre little arrangement, nifty as it is for Murphy, is like Pepsi hiring assistants for Coke or the Russians hiring janitors for America's Moscow embassy. (That last thing, oddly enough, actually happened.)

Some legislators, particularly those in the minority, are reluctant to let their speaker-sponsored secretaries handle sensitive phone calls, preferring to take such calls on their cell phones. And members unlucky enough to be assigned incompetent or under-performing assistants are seldom able to do anything about it.

Asked about Murphy's behavior this session, Westmoreland isn't interested in picking a fight with the imposing septuagenarian bully. "I'll have to say this, the speaker has been very fair with me this year," he says, noting that Murphy allowed him to make a seat selection in the chamber. Overall, Westmoreland says, "It has been better than I anticipated."

The lesson here? Set your expectations for Tom Murphy very low and you won't be disappointed.??





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