News - Gloat-free zone

The state GOP that governs humbly, governs best

Georgians woke Nov. 2 in a two-party state, but retired that night in a state dominated by Republicans.

Democrats' hopes to regain control of the state Senate, which they lost in 2002, were dashed when the Republican Party gained even firmer control of that chamber. And last week's election threw the state House firmly into GOP hands for the first time since Reconstruction.

The state's new majority party will be tempted to flex its muscle and charge forward with an aggressive legislative agenda, consisting of every initiative that has been bottled up for years. Already, talk of a "mandate" and words like "payback" are surfacing.

Before Georgia's GOP gets carried away with the fact that it occupies the governor's mansion and holds majorities in both state legislative chambers, it might be best to take a deep breath and pull out some history books for review. Paradoxically, the greatest challenge the party faces lies not in passing its agenda, but in resisting the urge to abuse its newfound power.

Think back to 1998. Newly elected Gov. Roy Barnes was riding high, backed by solid Democrat majorities in both houses. During the next four years, which the then-governor clearly presumed would prelude a second term, he and his party went on a power spree.

Following the 2000 census, they openly and arrogantly chopped up communities for redistricting. While that ultimately brought Democrats gains in Georgia's congressional delegation (including a subsequent loss by yours truly), the longtime majority party lost sight of the trees for the forest. By focusing their efforts largely at the federal level, the governor and his men left their hold on the General Assembly and on county courthouses vulnerable. In the next election, Tom Murphy, the nation's longest-serving state House speaker, was defeated. Then, in a strategically brilliant case brought by the Republican Party, the Democrats' state legislative redistricting plan was invalidated by a federal court, which laid the ground for the GOP's subsequent gains.

Barnes and company also displayed a tin ear toward the pleas of the special interests that long had been the strength of Georgia Democrats. They angered teachers, one of the state party's most loyal constituencies, by arrogantly ignoring their objections to parts of Barnes' education reform plans. They tried to build a highway no one wanted, upsetting both environmental groups and suburbanites who lived near the highway's path.

And the governor, listening more closely to the Atlanta media than to the millions of Georgians who live outside the Perimeter, foisted a new flag on the state that no one liked except perhaps for a few of those who voted for it and the artist who designed it.

Beginning with Barnes' defeat and the Senate Republican takeover in 2002, Georgia voters rewarded Democrats by sending them packing. But if Republicans think some special magic protects them from the same fate, they're delusional.

Republicans do have a few things going for them. First, they haven't turned government over to an arrogant handful of pompous staffers who weren't elected by anyone. Second, their key leaders don't include people like Augusta's Charles Walker, who view public service as an opportunity for personal gain. Finally, the Georgia GOP hasn't yet become dominated by special interest groups rather than the electorate as a whole.

But Georgia Republicans do need a large "bad idea bucket," and a commitment to making sure it stays filled with all the stupid suggestions that should never see the light of day.

They must resist, for example, punishing Atlanta for its mayor's bad judgment. By allowing herself to become deeply involved in partisan politics in a year when Republicans stomped their challengers, Shirley Franklin has painted a bull's eye on every funding program of importance to the city. Keeping the economic engine of Atlanta humming — whether it involves cleaning up sewers or subsidizing MARTA — will require at least the appearance of contrition on Franklin's part. But it also will require a reasonably helpful attitude from Republicans.

The Grand Old Party also will have to fight hard against the pressure it already is getting to start rewarding insiders and lobbyists with sweetheart deals. Everything from road contracts to prison management now will be controlled by one party. The temptation to take advantage will be huge. Passing Gov. Sonny Perdue's ethics reform package would be a good step in the right direction — but it is no substitute for an ironclad commitment from every elected official to strictly follow both the letter and spirit of the law.

Finally, Republican leaders must be ready to slap the hands of members who make the false assumption that adopting a rigid and inflexible hard-right stance on every divisive social issue under the sun is going to get the party very far. It's certainly possible to force hard-line policies on everything from teaching evolution to loosening anti-discrimination statutes through a GOP Legislature. But the short-term thinking that might favor such initiatives should be soundly trumped by more strategic, long-term goals.

Georgia Republicans have a great opportunity to bring open, positive, fiscally responsible government to the Peach State. Georgians of all political backgrounds should pray they don't squander it. The new majority party should declare the state a gloat-free zone and mean it.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr can be reached at bob.barr@creativeloafing.com.

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