Cover Story: The 15th Annual Golden Sleaze Awards

Chronicling the bad, the ugly and the just plain dumb of the 2004 General Assembly

Sometimes people accuse Creative Loafing of having a leftist bias. We’re serious. It really happens.

But in the rusty-hinged recesses of our seldom-used, bleeding hearts, we have an abiding faith that most politicians are trying to do the best for their constituents. They just have different ideas of how to get it done. That’s what makes political debate great.

But the 2004 General Assembly session was enough to try anyone’s faith, no matter how Job-like they are. The action under the Gold Dome was dominated by cultural wedge issues — gay marriage, especially — that were all about getting people to the polls in November, even as the state struggled through difficult economic decisions that pitted education vs. Medicaid, the underserved poor vs. often underserved children.

But this is the one week you won’t hear us complaining about the venal politics and cold-hearted skunks that made the 40 days of the 2004 session one to forget. Because you legislators created a Golden Sleaze embarrassment of riches. We literally didn’t have room for all those who were nominated.

Your plaques are in the mail.

The Ross Barnett Memorial Award

To Gov. Sonny Perdue. The gub’nah plays like he’s just the state’s passive manager, waiting, Stephen Covey-like, in his Buckhead mansion to carry out the will of the General Assembly. “Golly gee, Speaker Coleman, where do I sign?”

But the divisive agenda that dominated the Legislature this year — God, guns and gays — was really part of a cynical, national Republican election strategy to parlay ignorance and prejudice into votes. And Perdue has proven an enthusiastic foot soldier in the bigotry brigade.

You may remember Ross Barnett as the 1960s Mississippi governor who promised never to let a black student into Ole Miss. Perdue did his own version of the schoolhouse-door stand when he pepped up a so-called “Christian” rally demanding a vote on the GOP’s anti-gay marriage amendment.

Perdue’s party may score political successes this year by taking the low road, but it will come at a price. History isn’t kind to those who seek to take rights away from Americans. And, if Perdue doesn’t soon get the General Assembly to concentrate on real issues, instead of bashing a minority, he’ll be remembered in the same way that Barnett, Lester Maddox and George Wallace are: classic Southern demagogues.

The Dog Who Wants Both Bones Award

To the 2001 special session’s Democratic leaders — especially former Gov. Roy Barnes, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, and Bobby Kahn, former gubernatorial chief of staff. When they shoved overly aggressive redistricting maps down the throats of lawmakers three years ago, Barnes and company thought they were ensuring Democratic Party dominance of the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation for the rest of the decade. Instead, they created a great campaign issue for Republicans.

During this year’s session, federal judges ruled that the maps were unfair and had to be redrawn. And because Republicans had won the governor’s mansion and control of the Senate — partly by raising the issue of unfair redistricting — Democrats couldn’t redraw the lines themselves. Now, the courts have done it, and they didn’t give Democrats much special treatment.

Just keep reaching for more than you should, boys. Pretty soon you’ll lose everything.

The Chamber’s Errand Boy Award

To House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman. There’s no shortage of Georgia legislators who see big business lobbyists as their most important constituents. It’s the timeless equation of campaign contributions equaling votes. But Coleman singled himself out as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s toady of first resort when he sacked ex-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah. Bordeaux’s sin was keeping the chamber’s No. 1 priority — a ridiculously low $250,000 cap on jury awards for pain and suffering — bottled up in committee.

It’s not Coleman’s support for the wrong-headed bill that earns him this award. It’s that he would go so far as to replace a committee chairman in the middle of a session over a policy disagreement (rather than, say, a concern about ethics) — a particularly craven break with protocol, even for Coleman.

The Viagra Award

To Sen. Joey Brush, R-Martinez. Brush made a show of righteousness when corresponding with constituents who urged him to vote against the Senate’s demagogic anti-gay marriage legislation. In a canned response to one voter, the suburban Augusta lawmaker wrote that he would vote for the resolution because he believed “the obvious effect of [high divorce rates] on our children only makes it more obvious that traditional marriage is more important for our children truer than ever before.” How eloquent.

Unfortunately for Brush, he was outed as a hypocrite for allegedly having affairs with two moms while he was still married to the mother of his four children. And those were just the accusations CL could document.

The Capitol was abuzz all session over the adulterous affairs of Brush’s fellow defenders of the “sanctity” of marriage. But the horn-dog from Martinez was the most brazen: Allegations of one of his affairs even appear in court records.

Joey, for erections lasting longer than 40 days, please contact your physician.

The Exxon Valdez Award

To Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville.

Dear Sen. Cagle,

We know you’re currying favor with fat-cat lobbyists such as Joe Tanner and lining up developer support for a lieutenant governor’s race. But damn, did you have to single-handedly try to destroy our streams by pushing for a bill that would allow them to be piped and paved over? Do you really need to ram construction projects down communities’ throats by threatening a bill that would allow developments to continue even when they’re being contested?

Some legislators like to toss their corporate buddies a bone. You tried to heave the whole damn chicken. Couldn’t you have just thrown developers a barbecue or taken them to Disney On Ice? (Everybody knows developers love to imagine themselves as giant stuffed characters levitating above a world paved over with pristine sheets of icy glass.)

We can already count one vote you probably won’t be getting: state Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch’s. That’s because you publicly lied by saying she supported your stream-destruction bill, and then you had the audacity to call for her firing because she told the truth — that she had problems with the bill all along.

Yours truly,

A Concerned Newspaper

The Sticking It to the (Little) Man Award

To Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs. A recent conversation between the devil and Ehrhart, as overheard in the House’s anteroom:

Satan: This year, I’d like you to stand up for the rights of payday lenders to rip off borrowers, write a bill that usurps local government’s authority to pass living-wage laws — because that might actually help the poor — and continue with what you do best — attack anything having to do with Atlanta in a thinly veiled appeal to racism.

Ehrhart: No problem, chief. While we’re at it, would you like me to promote legislation that would encourage children to tie up kittens in burning burlap sacks?

Satan: Not this year, Earl, but I would appreciate it if you reveled in your own craven behavior. Try fiendishly rubbing your hands together and laughing demonically. It worked for Dick Dastardly.

Ehrhart: With pleasure, my master.

The This Really Hurts Us Award

To Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. When you’re a liberal senior member of the Legislative Black Caucus and you find yourself on the same side as Ehrhart, you need to check the lithium dosage.

Brooks, along with Ehrhart, pulled out of his hat a fatuous argument against a bill that would put Georgia’s predatory and already illegal payday lenders out of business. They claimed the bill was unfair because it didn’t include the nearly as nasty industrial loan industry.

So let’s get this straight: If someone is blind and deaf, you shouldn’t restore his hearing unless you can also cure his blindness? Right.

The Perfection in Pandering Award

To Sens. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah; Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga; and Mike Crotts, R-Conyers. Each of these esteemed statesmen came up with a not-so-ingenious way to pander to right-wing voters and divide Democrats — not to mention the entire state.

Johnson sponsored a resolution to make hunting and fishing constitutionally protected rights in Georgia. Who exactly was challenging those “rights”?

Mullis championed legislation to encourage local governments to display the Ten Commandments. Do we really need to encourage our stupidest county commissions to waste taxpayers’ money on unconstitutionally mixing church and state?

Crotts, who once famously said God had sent him back to Earth after a near-death experience, sponsored a bigoted anti-gay marriage resolution that would put the issue before voters in November. He deserves special scorn for introducing the legislation before running for Congress. Mike, are you sure God wasn’t just telling you, “Go away?”

The Goober Giveth and the Goober Taketh Away Award

To Rep. Bill Heath, R-Bremen. Heath upended then-House Speaker Tom Murphy in the 2002 election. This session, he showed that the General Assembly’s cumulative IQ is sliding faster than “Average Joe II” ratings when he managed to turn what was a progressive bill on women’s rights into one that would treat women as second-class citizens.

The original legislation, by Sen. Nadine Thomas, D-Decatur, would protect girls from genital mutilation. The chivalrous Mr. Heath added an amendment in the House that would make it a crime for women to have their private parts pierced by their own free will.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate,” said the self-appointed arbiter of taste and style. Along with the award, Bethra Szumski, owner of Virtue & Vice at Timeless Tattoo on Cheshire Bridge Road, would like to offer Heath a free piercing of his own genitalia — but only if he doesn’t want it.

The Bobby Franklin Memorial Award

In honor of the late, great Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta. We give this award to a legislator who has proven himself especially irrelevant by proposing wacky bills that never stand a chance of passage. If Franklin had his way:

- Any shop owner or school principal who banned guns could be sued by people injured in crimes committed in such “gun-free zones.”

- The state wouldn’t be allowed to communicate on printed documents in any language other than English.

- To obtain an abortion, a woman would have to get a grand jury indictment for a capital offense against her fetus.

We owe a great debt to Bobby Franklin. He set the bar high for future lawmakers who want to specialize in the dada-ist art of absurd legislation.

Wait ... oh, shit. You mean Franklin is still alive? Never mind, then.

The Hey! Kick That Guy! He’s Down! Award

To Reps. Paul Smith, D-Rome; Bill Cummings, D-Rockmart; Gerald Greene, D-Cuthbert; and Ron Borders, D-Valdosta. It took four guys to come up with a bill this bad: It would actually require people being evicted from their homes to pay a court fee for the privilege of having to answer their landlord’s summons. What’s next, fellas? Let’s just give food stamp recipients seeds. Or maybe you can get victims of assault to salve the bloodied hands of their attackers.

The Consistency Is a Hobgoblin Award

To AJC columnist (and unofficial Republican Party spokesman) Jim Wooten. After CL broke the story about Brush’s indiscretions, Wooten wrote: “The private lives of public officials, like the private lives of ordinary residents, are none of our business.” Wait a second. Isn’t this the same guy who declared President Clinton had diminished the presidency with his “reckless and reprehensible personal conduct” in “America’s house.”

Wooten actually managed to be hypocritical about hypocrisy. Wow. That’s post-modernism for you.

The Day is Night, Up is Down Award

To Rep. John Douglas, R-Covington.

There are moments during floor debates when you pray for an appearance of the Apollo Theater’s “Sandman” — the clown who sweeps the talentless off the stage. During a debate on Ehrhart’s anti-living wage bill, somebody should have taken a broom to Douglas.

He made the bold move of venturing to the speaker’s well so that he could whine for the rights of — you guessed it — corporations.

“We have to get out of the business of telling business how to do business,” he pleaded, adding that the state needs to stop treating corporations like a “money tree.”

Um, yeah. If the business lobby were any closer to the General Assembly, it would have to wear a condom. Georgia’s doled out at least $120 million in corporate tax breaks during the last 15 years, in addition to losing an estimated $250 million annually to tax loopholes exploited by businesses.

Despite the state’s fiscal woes, lawmakers piled new tax breaks this year on big business, and business leaders pretty much got their way on a range of issues, from labor laws to the environment.

Seems more like large corporations are using taxpayers as the money tree, not the other way around.

The Tiger Woods Award

To Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. Man, you must really love golf when you’re willing to drop $2 million in state money on a course in your home district — the same year that more than 27,000 women and children faced being dropped from Medicaid. That’s the kind of love that encourages snake-handling bumpkins to slow dance with rattlers — meaning, the kind that doesn’t include reason.

The I Did Not Have Sexual Relations with that Woman Award

To the Medical Association of Georgia and its namesake, insurance giant MAG Mutual. When the case is made for the state’s dire need of $250,000 pain and suffering caps in medical malpractice cases, you can bet there won’t be an insurance executive at the podium. No. In Georgia, doctors carry the insurance companies’ water — as well they should.

After all, the medical association received a $600,000 “endorsement” payment from MAG Mutual last year. (What exactly the association is “endorsing” is anybody’s guess; MAG Mutual is just about the only malpractice game in town.)

But those close ties didn’t stop the insurance company’s president, Tom Gose, from telling lawmakers in a women’s caucus meeting that there was absolutely no connection between the two organizations. Really? That’s funny. We can think of about 600,000 connections.

The Don’t You Dumbasses Have Any Fact Checkers Award

To Creative Loafing. Normally, CL deploys a minion of fresh-faced interns, whose attention to detail is matched only by their impeccable hygiene and diction, to fact-check every story this esteemed institution feels proud to place on its pages — right next to the ad for vaginal reconstructive surgery.

But on the week of March 11, we ran a photo of Rep. Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, with our Weekly Scalawag column — about Sen. Cagle. In the picture, you could even see Skipper’s nametag. Doh!

Jimmy, we’re sorry. You can rest assured that somewhere in Atlanta, an intern was walking around campus the next week with a red bottom after receiving a severe spanking.

The James Dean Is Spinning in His Grave Award

To Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton. We never thought we’d see a legislator from Dalton taking a page from California’s book, but that’s exactly what Thomas did this session by proposing a statewide ban on smoking in public places. The one thing that Thomas seems to have forgotten is just how cool smoking really is. Go ahead. Try to name one cool person who doesn’t now, or didn’t at one time, smoke. We’ve tried — Bogey, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn. You can’t do it. Plus, what the hell are our beloved indie-rock bands supposed to do onstage now?

The Hell No We Ain’t Fergettin’ Award

To Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell. While it makes us giggle that you sit chain-smoking in your office in the same building shared by Sen. (Slim Notsogoodbody) Thomas, what the hell were you thinking when you introduced a resolution that would fly the controversial battle flag two days a year? Georgia’s had enough racial division over a piece of cloth for one decade. Couldn’t you have just said, “Gov. Barnes really screwed up when he 86’d our dear old flag of the Confederacy” and left it at that? Georgia voters seem to have. Besides, we thought every month in Hartwell was Confederate history and heritage month.