Rep. Harry Geisinger, 82: Longtime Republican pushed for horse racing

Even when state Rep. Harry Geisinger couldn’t persuade his Republican colleagues to support a bill, they respected his tenacity.

Whether promoting horse racing or working with other Republican stalwarts to end Democratic dominance, the Roswell lawmaker never gave up on an issue he believed in.

When he served from 1969 to 1974, he was one of fewer than 30 Republicans in the state House. By the time he won re-election in 2004, his party had a solid majority in the Legislature and in state government.

“He was an activist and highly involved in the state and county Republican Party,” said Mack Mattingly, who in 1980 became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia since Reconstruction.

“It was the same thing that pushed all of us back then: wanting to create a two-party system in Georgia,” Mattingly said. “Harry did it all with a smile. He was a good man and a good friend.”

Along the way, Geisinger kept up his dogged crusade for water rights, pari-mutuel wagering and horse racing, solar energy and economic development.

“Harry had a long view of his work,” said state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Atlanta. “He knew you had to start somewhere to get the discussion started. He wanted action, but he also wanted fair and open discussion. He had one heck of a great run.”

Geisinger died May 1 of leukemia at the age of 82. Visitation will be 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Friday, and his funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, both at Northside Chapel in Roswell.

Born in Cincinnati on Oct. 31, 1932, Geisinger grew up in Chicago. As a child, he enjoyed sailing on Lake Michigan, and he got his first job at age 7 selling magazines door-to-door. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1953 to 1957 and received a business degree from the University of Cincinnati.

In 1959, he and Patricia Virginia Capdau eloped to Atlanta, and had four children. His first job in Atlanta was selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. He later started an advertising business and worked in pharmacy sales and coal brokerage.

Geisinger also became active in civic organizations and youth sports. He promoted the expansion of soccer around the state, and spearheaded the first college scouting soccer program for high school players to get scholarships. In 2006, he was inducted into the Georgia Soccer Hall of Fame.

Geisinger got his start in politics in the 1960s, working on Arizona Republican senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign in Georgia. Although Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide, his win in the Democratic stronghold of Georgia was considered a major feat for the state’s Republicans at the time.

In 1966, Geisinger worked on fellow Republican Ben Blackburn’s campaign for Congress, which Blackburn won in a squeaker. Two years later, Geisinger won the state House seat in District 72 (Doraville, Chamblee, Dunwoody). In 1970, he was elected the House Minority Whip.

Geisinger was an advocate in 1972 of legislation to require elected officials to step down from their current post before seeking another office, said his daughter Donna Geisinger of Roswell. Georgia later passed a resign-to-run law, in 1983.

“That bill became a huge controversy back then,” she said. “People elected to serve in one office would run for another office at the same time. And if they lost, they could still keep their job. He didn’t think that was right. It was like having your cake and eating it, too. It was a beautiful thing he did.”

In 1974, he resigned his House seat to run for governor as the “common sense candidate” and lost in the GOP primary.

During a 30-year hiatus from the Legislature, Geisinger stayed active in party politics and continued his work in the community and as an advertising consultant.

In 1980, President Ronald Reagan appointed him administrator of the Southeastern Power Administration, a position he held until 1988. He worked on Mike Huckaby’s 2008 presidential campaign and Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid in Georgia.

Geisinger enjoyed fishing and sailing. He was a Mason and Shriner, member of the Roswell Rotary, and served on boards for several organizations, including the Atlanta Area Boy Scout Council, Georgia State Soccer Association and the American Cancer Society.

After his 2004 re-election to the House in District 48, Geisinger focused on nature and marshland conservation; ending the birthday tax for vehicle registration and additional funding for trauma centers and restrictions on civilian drone use, and he attempted to change the Georgia-Tennessee border for access to the water rights from Nickajack Lake, Tenn.

During this year’s legislative session, he made another push to legalize horse-racing betting. The bill failed to make it to a House floor vote.

“I told him that I could not support it. Harry was very respectful of my decision,” Wilkinson said. “Again, it was one of the reasons that he was successful in many areas.”

His steadfastness is part of his legacy, his daughter said. “If Daddy said yes to something, he stayed with it,” Donna said. “His continuity has always been there, and he always had a long-term commitment to whatever he believed in.”

In addition to his daughter Donna, Geisinger is survived by his wife Pat Geisinger of Roswell, son Clay Geisinger of Charlotte, N.C., daughter Tricia Parker of Gainesville; brother William Geisinger of Elk Grove Village, Ill., and four grandchildren.

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