Opinion: The GOP fight over a House seat – and the Alabama backstory

060329 - ATLANTA, GA -- Jay Walker (cq), from left, chief of staff for the Speaker's office, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson (cq, R-Hiram), Gov. Sonny Perdue (cq) and John Watson (cq), Perdue's chief of staff, talk Wednesday, March 29, 2006 about what's to come on the eve of the final day of the Legislative session. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)
060329 - ATLANTA, GA -- Jay Walker (cq), from left, chief of staff for the Speaker's office, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson (cq, R-Hiram), Gov. Sonny Perdue (cq) and John Watson (cq), Perdue's chief of staff, talk Wednesday, March 29, 2006 about what's to come on the eve of the final day of the Legislative session. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

We complain about the constant sniping between Democrats and GOP forces. But really, there are few things more brutal than a Republican-on-Republican battle over Georgia real estate.

Such contests often pit purity against practicality. And when God is on your side, you’re pretty sure that the Deity will excuse all manner of things.

Last fall, Marcy Westmoreland Sakrison lost a special election runoff to fellow Republican Philip Singleton for House District 71, which covers most of Coweta County and a smidgen of Fayette County.

Some days later, Jay Walker, who managed Sakrison’s campaign, had his 12-year-old daughter in his pickup. The young girl latched onto a glossy flyer that the opposition had used to hammer his client.

It had a picture of her very own daddy, and this headline: “Georgia Republican’s campaign strategist arrested in Alabama vote buying scheme.” The Singleton flyer failed to note that Walker had been acquitted. Twice.

And so Walker was required to sit down with that daughter and her 10-year-old sister to explain a very rough chapter in his life. A 4-year-old will be told later.

A Sakrison-Singleton rematch will be one of the closest-watched GOP contests in the June 9 primary. Walker is again running the Sakrison campaign, and anticipates that he’ll again become an issue. A few days ago, he sent word that he wanted to talk.

“My biggest fear is having to drag my family through things like that again. No. 2, people are trying to use me as a hammer against my clients,” Walker said when we finally talked. “There’s a point where enough is enough. And I’ve reached that point.”

One other consideration: Walker has a brass-knuckle reputation. And the first punch is always worth 30 pounds in a fight.

But there is more to this than a mere campaign tactic and an awkward backstory. Walker is also the chief strategist for the House Republican caucus. He is in charge of protecting the chamber’s 16-seat majority – and House Speaker David Ralston’s job – in a year that’s likely to be challenge for the Georgia GOP at all levels.

Whoever wins the House District 71 primary on June 9 will face Democrat Jill Prouty in November. Ralston has endorsed Sakrison, a teacher and daughter of former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, over a serving member of his GOP caucus.

Singleton is a hardcore, sharp-edged conservative who has allied himself with GOP critics of Ralston. So there’s that, and the calculation on the speaker’s part that the seat would be safer if held by a Republican suburban woman well-versed in educational issues. Complaints have been registered.

“It’s not about the primary any more. A lot of Republicans haven’t woken up yet and realized that November is going to be the fight of our life. Georgia has changed. Demographics have changed, politics has changed,” Walker said. “You can either be the red rock that people want to beat on all the time, or you’re going to have to shade to purple – and come back to where people really are in this state. Some in our party don’t see it that way.”

Now about that backstory. And Alabama.

In Georgia, the GOP took control of the state House in 2004. Walker was one of the architects of the victory, and became chief of staff to Speaker Glenn Richardson, the first Republican to hold the office since the 19th century.

Two years later, Walker was tired of politics and wanted out of the game. He moved to West Point, Ga., and joined a construction company. They moved dirt – the clean kind.

One of their projects was an Alabama casino venture called Country Crossing. When Walker and his company sent a $2 million invoice to developer Ronnie Gilley, he couldn’t pay. Alabama permits bingo, and the project was based on the use of electronic bingo machines. But the governor of Alabama declared those to be nothing more than slot machines, and thus illegal.

The project was shut down. Gilley and the principals of Walker’s company decided that their only avenue was an amendment to Alabama’s constitution. Walker became the public face of the campaign.

“I got involved in the entire ordeal, basically to save our company. I got involved so we could get paid,” Walker said. “Politics just grabbed me and drew me back in.”

A word about the politics of gambling in Alabama: Certainly, profound moral arguments can be made against games of chance, but in Alabama they have often served as facades. Opposition is often fueled by competing gambling interests – tribal operations in Alabama and beyond, and established casino corporations in Mississippi and Louisiana.

In 1999 and 2000, Ralph Reed – then widely known as the former leader of the Christian Coalition — waged successful battles in Alabama to defeat a state lottery and video poker legislation. It was later learned that financing for his campaigns passed through several hands, but originated with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw — a tribe with gambling facilities to protect.

A U.S. Senate investigation in 2006 found that Reed did nothing illegal, but the scandal ended his electoral ambitions.

Four years later, Walker found himself mired in something similar. Three Republican state legislators told the FBI that they had been approached by people who offered large campaign contributions in return for votes on the gambling legislation. They agreed to wear wires.

Gilley, the casino developer, pleaded guilty, as did two lobbyists and a state lawmaker. They became prosecution witnesses. Walker was among those who went to trial in federal court – the smallest fish in the bunch.

Two trials were held. One in 2010, another in 2012. Prosecutors were unable to win a single conviction in either. When he left the courtroom for the last time, Walker was asked what he thought of his experience. “This is a cruel and unusual place to do business and politics. It just is. The risk is not worth the reward,” he told reporters.

And so Walker returned to Georgia, and our brand of politics.

On Thursday, I called state Rep. Philip Singleton of Sharpsburg to talk about his opponent’s campaign strategist and last year’s flyer. He accused Walker of trolling his Facebook page, trying to pick a fight.

“I’m not sure why he’s trying to make himself important in our race. I don’t think he is,” Singleton said. “I didn’t arrest him. I didn’t put him on trial. I pointed out that the ones that are always involved in crooked politics are the ones attacking us.”

I pressed on the fact that Singleton had advertised Walker’s arrest – but never mentioned his acquittal. “That was 100 percent fact,” he replied.

But it was also incomplete, I answered.

“I didn’t say he was convicted,” Singleton said.

I also reached out to Speaker Ralston to see if he wanted to weigh in on the topic of Jay Walker. He did. “[Walker] brings great enthusiasm. And he proved to me that he could take a punch. Tough times produce tough people, and we needed a tough fighter,” Ralston said. “He shares with me a love for the House of Representatives. He wanted to come home.”

Ralston and his controversial law firm practices were targeted in the same flyer that targeted Walker. It is fair game, but now settled. As for dwelling on Walker's  Alabama experience? "To continue to harp on that borders on slander, and it shows a complete lack of understanding of our Constitution," Ralston said.

Three weeks will tell us whether the House’s ruling caucus will head to November in united or fractured fashion. “It’s going to be a tough year — we know that,” Ralston said. “We lost 11 seats in ’18. We’ve got several seats in play in November. I’m optimistic that we’re going to retain the majority, but it’s not a given. We’re going to have to work for it.”

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