The voice of a moderate

Published 2:41 pm Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The General Assembly opened Monday in weather much like my first day under the Gold Dome.

The air was cold enough to take your breath, the skies were cloudless and the ice make walking treacherous if you weren’t watching where you were going.

I made my way into the building without any political label. I ran in a non-partisan in the election to replace Cathy Cox and steadfastly refused to declare which party I would represent, instead maintaining that I would represent the people. Only Cox knew which party I would join until just moments before I was sworn in.

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I was a moderate and proud of it. I still believe that my beliefs reflect those of the majority of Georgians and indeed, Americans. However, since that cold morning 14 years ago, much has changed amongst those we have chosen to lead us both in Atlanta and in Washington.

I struggled during my years in Atlanta with the party labels. After being sworn in as a Democrat and becoming a deputy whip, I changed parties. I became a Republican while they were still an entrenched minority, seeking a place where my beliefs were more welcome.

Along the way, I found that moderates were often no more welcome in the GOP than in the Democratic Party. It seems that both conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans were on their way out, I just didn’t know it.

I chaired Cathy Cox’s Democratic campaign for governor as a Republican because we both felt that Georgia was ready to move from the partisanship of party politics and to tackle the real problems facing all Georgians. I would soon stare political treachery in the face as we both came to realize the lengths at which both parties would fight to keep their power.

Little did I know at how much worse it would get in Georgia, particularly in the House of Representatives. Under the leadership of the previous speaker, Glenn Richardson, rules were changed that stifled debate and ignored the rights of those elected in minority districts. The “Hawk” system was implemented giving leadership appointees the right to swoop into committees and change the outcome to reflect the speaker’s will.

Nothing I ever encountered in politics as a politician or a citizen offended me more than this raw political power grab. The victims weren’t just Democrats. They were Republicans further down the ladder. Mostly, the victims were the lovers of democracy that hold up the belief that one man’s vote is as valuable as any other.

The changes allowing the Rules Committee to make substitutions and prohibit debate stacked the deck against the very process that has held this state and nation together for 200 years. Winning is not always more important than the process. Fifty-one percent is not a mandate.

Along the way, moderates quietly retired or were defeated. The extreme left or right of each party controlled the primaries, and ultimately the elections. The litmus tests for party standards were more important than character or independence or the needs of those that elected you.

Today, we have a new Speaker of the House, David Ralston. I believe him to be a fair, honest man with leadership skills that this chamber desperately requires. His speech on Monday as he took office gives me hope that he will bring civility and fairness back to our lawmaking process. He has reached out to his party and more importantly to the other side of the aisle.

Larry O’Neal, whom he defeated in the race for Speaker, nominated Ralston and called him, “the right man for all the right reasons, at the right time and certainly the right place.”

I am not so nave as to not understand the value of discipline and tough leadership by the heads of our legislative bodies. However, our leadership, particularly in the House, seemed not to understand that the people value fairness. They want consensus and thoughtful debate. Forget the lobbyists and the insiders just long enough to remember why you went to Atlanta in the first place.

Moderates were once the backbone of American politics. They sought consensus, were not afraid of compromise, and saw value in this country taking a middle-of-the-road approach. There were opportunities for “win-win” solutions.

The Oxford dictionary defines a moderate as an “individual who is not extreme, partisan or radical.” I expect that still describes most of this country. I know it still describes me.

Georgia faces problems of an almost unprecedented scale with a budget revenue shortfall of almost $1 billion. There will be painful cuts and very tough decisions for the General Assembly.

I will pray for and encourage our governor and all the General Assembly, particularly Speaker Ralston. I will pray for their leadership and wisdom. I will pray they make difficult decisions for the right reasons. I will pray for them to seek “win-win” situations in this “lose-lose” environment, and I will hope in this time of confusion and despair that they will seek the middle of the road where moderates once tread.