Retiring Georgia legislators take decades of knowledge with them

The end of the 2020 legislative session Friday brought dozens of farewell speeches and well wishes as more than 20 lawmakers participated in their final sine die.

Eight state senators and 19 House members are leaving the Legislature because they are retiring or sought higher office.

At least five of the retiring lawmakers will have served at least 20 years in office when they pass the baton to the new generation of legislators in January, taking with them decades of institutional knowledge.

Steve Henson

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson served two stints in the state Senate, leaving for four years after unsuccessfully running for labor commissioner in 1998.

First elected in 1990, the Stone Mountain Democrat returned to the chamber in 2003 and has served as the party’s leader since 2011.

In honoring Henson, Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Gloria Butler spoke of his personal kindness. She once talked about sitting on her patio, but she said she didn't like dragging a chair outside. Henson later surprised her with a rocking chair she could leave on the patio.

“That was such a heartwarming gesture,” she said. “I hadn’t even thought about buying a chair for myself. But he did.

“His thoughtfulness,” Butler said, “is the underpinning of everything he does.”

Henson thanked a long list of colleagues and employees he had worked with over the years — including many who spoke in the Senate on Thursday. But he joked that the way 2020 has gone, maybe it was time for him to make his exit.

“After you see a session with a pandemic and masks and you see the social and civil unrest that’s going on and the challenges in society — of course this is supposed to be the year the locusts are supposed to hit,” Henson said.

Tom McCall

House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Tom McCall was first elected in 1994. After 26 years in office, the Elberton Republican said he felt like it was time to move on.

McCall, a grain and livestock farmer, announced last year that he will run for president of the Georgia Farm Bureau later this year.

During his farewell remarks, McCall said he’d served through five governors and five speakers of the House.

"When I first came up here we didn't have beepers, we didn't have cellphones," McCall said. "People like (state Rep.) Alan Powell, smoking cigars, kept a fog in that ante room out there where you had to go use a phone, and then we got a beeper and we thought we were in heaven. Then you got bag phones and then you got cellphones. That's how long I've been here, and it's probably time to go home."

He said he worked hard to ensure the Agriculture Committee was run in the least partisan way possible.

“All y’all members that are here today and has been, I just appreciate y’all letting me be your friend,” he said. “In the future, when an ag issue comes up, I want you to remember WWTD: What Would Tom Do?”

Renee Unterman

Senate Science and Technology Committee Chairwoman Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican, is leaving the Georgia Legislature after having served more than 20 years. She was first elected to the House in 1998 and moved to the Senate after serving four years.

Unterman, one of the chamber’s two Republican women, is leaving the Senate after an unsuccessful run for Congress. But Unterman said she’s looking forward to stepping away from public service.

Never known for biting her tongue, Unterman welcomed what will be her newfound ability to really speak her mind.

“I’m kind of like a bird out of a cage,” she said. “I’m getting to be able to fly, and it’s a wonderful thing. I don’t have to be politically correct anymore — not that I was very much — but I don’t have to be anymore. And it’s a wonderful feeling.”

‘Able’ Mable Thomas

State Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas will have served a total of 22 years when she officially leaves office in January.

The Atlanta Democrat was first sworn in to the House in 1985 and served eight years. She returned to office in 2003, serving for six years. Thomas returned for her third stint in office in 2013.

Thomas said she is leaving office on a high. Having lobbied for the state to address its high rate of maternal mortality, a rate that is even higher among Black women, Thomas said she is excited the Legislature agreed to expand Medicaid to low-income mothers who need the public health care from two months to six.

During the last week of the session, it was unclear whether the program would be funded due to the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

"On Thursday, on the floor, I asked the speaker, 'Isn't it true that even though we passed (House Bill) 1114, that we need to restore all the funding to it that it had in place before the pandemic?" Thomas said. "And then they put the money back in the budget.

“The Lord delivered and allowed me to be used as a vessel for progressive leadership in the state of Georgia,” she said.

Ellis Black

After 20 years in office, Senate Retirement Committee Chairman Ellis Black is retiring from the Legislature. First elected in 2000, Black served in the House for 14 years before moving to the Senate in 2015.

Black, a Valdosta Republican, took time to reflect on his years in office. He recalled former state Rep. Henry Reaves coming to him to ask him to run to replace him.

“He was a man that was very straightforward,” Black said. ” He says, ‘I can’t get the fella I want to run. … There ain’t but one man that can do that job and he won’t run, so I want you to run.’”

Black was recognized for his work with public education, having started his political career on his local board of education.

"You have been the most fierce defender of public education that we have in this state," state Sen. Brandon Beach said. "We will definitely feel your absence in the Gold Dome next session."

Staff writers Mark Niesse and David Wickert contributed to this article.