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Georgia's legislative brain drain

By Dick Pettys
InsiderAdvantage Georgia

August 29, 2010 — Attrition is a fact of life for the Georgia Legislature. Every election cycle finds its share of lawmakers choosing to retire because of age or employment issues, or in pursuit of higher office.

Some years the attrition rate is particularly high, and this is one of those years.

Of the 236 people elected to a seat in the General Assembly on the 2008 ballot, a whopping 53 - more than 20 percent - will not be on the ballot for those same positions in two months or so when the next general election comes around. That amounts to 20 percent of the House and 30 percent of the Senate.

Numerically, this is an even bigger brain drain than the last great talent loss of 2004, when 42 lawmakers decided to do something else.

This year, a good portion of the attrition can be attributed to the unusually high number of open statewide seats. A number of lawmakers chose to give up the posts they had in order to try to win higher office.

Six years ago, a good portion of the attrition was attributable to the turbulence in Gold Dome politics. Republicans had already won control of the governor's office and the Senate, and the House was under electoral siege. A number of veteran Democrats, still reeling from the defeat two years earlier of then-Gov. Roy Barnes and former Speaker Tom Murphy, decided to call it quits.

Eric Johnson is one whose name was on the ballot in 2008 but won’t be there this November – the first time it has been absent in 18 years.

The former president pro tem of the Senate, he became the de facto lieutenant governor in 2003 after Republicans gained control of the upper chamber and relegated then-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, to the role of a glorified traffic cop over debate.

Johnson resigned from the Senate in 2009 to devote fulltime to his campaign for governor. He finished a respectable third in a seven-candidate primary. But close was not enough for him to continue the quest.

“I was in a position where I had gone from serving in the minority to serving in the majority and had climbed all the way up to be de facto lieutenant governor. The time had come to go home or find another way to serve,” he said of his campaign for higher office.

Will he miss the Legislature?

“I realize the world doesn’t revolve around me. We’ve got good young blood coming in. The Founding Fathers saw that as long as all the experienced people don’t leave at once, it’s good to blend new energy with wisdom and grey hair. That’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said.

The Obama administration accounted for two of the departing senators this year. Ed Tarver was named U.S. attorney for the southern district of Georgia. David Adelman was named ambassador to Singapore.

In all, 17 senators who were on the 2008 ballot won’t be on the 2010 card. In the House, 36 representatives will be gone.

The House losses include Majority Leader Jerry Keen and former interim Speaker (and speaker pro tem) Mark Burkhalter, both retiring, along with Minority Leader DuBose Porter, who lost his primary bid for governor.

All are veteran hands. But it can be argued that the 2004 loss was even more severe, at least in terms of longevity.

Among those retiring that year was 85-year-old Sen. Hugh Gillis of Soperton, who took office before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served under 14 governors. He chose to retire rather than face another incumbent - Republican Jack Hill of Reidsville - in a district redrawn by a federal court.

Also retiring in 2004: Larry Walker, the House Democratic leader, after 32 years in the chamber; Democrat Tom Buck, the House Appropriations Chairman who had served 38 years, and Republican Lynn Westmoreland, the House minority leader who led the GOP fight against the Democrat-drawn redistricting maps.


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