Ethics reformers feel a bit lonely at Capitol

At a meeting on ethics reform this month, State Sen. Josh McKoon reflected on the advice he was given two years ago when he entered the Senate.

“Sit down, shut up and listen,” he said.

Instead of taking a backbencher’s traditional role, McKoon agitated in his own party for ethics reform, a politically tricky maneuver even for a veteran legislator. And while it did not endear him to his caucus, McKoon’s retelling drew a chuckle from Democratic leader Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, an ethics ally who sat next to McKoon at the event.

The scene illustrates a curious subplot in the push for ethics reform.

McKoon, a conservative Republican from Columbus, and the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, a group led by solid conservatives with political backgrounds, are among the leaders at the Capitol calling for ethics reform. But despite their Republican bona fides, sometimes they appeared to have more friends among Democrats than within their own party.

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The political crossed wires make little impression on Julianne Thompson, co-founder of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. At least not when it comes to ethics.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “It’s about what is doing right for the citizens of Georgia.”

For the past two years, a loose coalition of tea party groups pushed the Legislature to end the practice of lawmakers accepting unlimited gifts from lobbyists. To get it done, they have aligned themselves with watchdog groups like Common Cause Georgia and Georgia Watch that do not share the tea party’s political outlook but do share their desire for ethics reform.

The alliance’s man on the inside is McKoon, who ignored the advice of senior lawmakers and pushed his own bills to cap lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers and increase funding to the state ethics commission.

McKoon’s bills went nowhere, and even his attempts to get a hearing fell flat.

“I found it surprising that we didn’t have any committee hearings,” he said. “I understand the reticence to allow a vote, but we (can) have bills called up for hearings only.”

McKoon said he was told his approach would have political consequences.

“You can feel very lonely when you are up there,” he said of the Capitol. “But there are nine and a half million people who are not in that building.”

McKoon said he was encouraged by the huge majorities that voted in favor of restricting gifts in nonbinding questions on this summer’s party primaries.

“Those kind of things indicate we are really on the right track,” he said.

McKoon’s crusade provoked grumbling from more experienced members of his own caucus. McKoon heard it, but he said he is comfortable with the choices he’s made.

He said he believes his legislative colleagues work hard and are not corrupt, but the public’s trust in government is so low that action must be taken.

“That’s why we have to get this right,” he said.

His pursuit of a touchy issue may have cost him some friends in the short term, but if the effort is successful this year McKoon will have a signature legislative victory many young lawmakers cannot claim.

Thompson is a political veteran, having served as a congressional aide and spokeswoman for the Georgia Republican Party, among other positions. The obstacles and attitudes – even from fellow Republicans – don’t bother her.

“There are always going to be some elected officials that are going to react defensively whenever ethics is mentioned,” she said.

If anything, being something of an outsider is liberating, she said.

“When I was a staffer I felt muzzled,” she said. “Now I’m an activist and very involved in the process and I’m not the least bit intimidated … I’m not a visitor at the Dome. I am an employer, and those are the employees of the citizens of Georgia. (Lawmakers) were elected to be public servants, not supreme rulers.”

If her association with more liberal groups – at least on this subject – makes her uncomfortable, she does not show it.

“We’ve had a very productive relationship,” she said. “It could serve as a model to a lot of people in government.”

So, these are the people pushing ethics reform: A crusading junior senator, empowered by the popularity of his issue, and an unmuzzled GOP veteran unperturbed by the occasional cold shoulder.

Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said it has been interesting to watch the inter-party dynamics of the ethics debate. Established GOP lawmakers may view the tea party representatives at the Capitol as a nuisance, but they cannot afford to ignore them.

“They represent rural voters and they represent a certain degree of political energy out there,” Swint, who is a Common Cause board member, said. “They have to deal with them. How much influence they have is an open question.”

He said he thinks the tea party and McKoon are in a stronger position than they were a year ago, in part because of the popular support for ethics reform.

“There are a lot of people who are tired of business as usual,” he said.

Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, said he thinks the tea party is better positioned too, in part because their leaders have matured.

“When people come to the Capitol for the first time they don’t have background or relationships or experience working in a legislative setting,” he said. “If there is any challenge in working with the (tea party) it’s the same for any advocacy group.”

Hill said he sympathizes with the tea party’s impatience.

“Whenever we’re not willing to listen and take recommendations and advice, it can be difficult to work with any of us,” he said. “I applaud their desire to engage and stand up for their beliefs. That’s been lacking with so many people in our country.”

Hill said he expects there will be ethics legislation in the coming session and he expects something will pass.

Study committees in the House and Senate began work on their proposals this month, but so far no legislation has been filed.

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