State Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth, spoke Wednesday against the Senate’s new sexual harassment rules. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Ga. Senate women blast male-dominated leadership over committee picks

State Senate Democrats banded with a prominent Gwinnett County Republican senator Wednesday to blast the chamber’s male-dominated GOP leadership for what they say is a serious lack of female representation in leadership roles.

The protest of sorts occurred the day after it became official that state Sen. Renee Unterman would no longer lead the Senate’s powerful health panel. The Buford Republican also was removed as vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is the chamber’s budget-writing panel.

It also came two days after Senate leadership began the 2019 session by pushing through rules limiting the window for people to file sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and staff.

Unterman, a former nurse and social worker, was instead made chairwoman of the much quieter Senate Science and Technology Committee, a panel that considered three bills during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

Unterman and several Democratic senators questioned why there were so few women on the powerful committees such as Judiciary and Appropriations that handle major bills each year.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said he worked with the Senate’s leadership to put senators in committees and assign roles that played to each lawmaker’s strengths.

“It’s a difficult process,” he said. “Any insinuation that this year’s process was discriminatory is nonsense.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, said at first she was thankful when she learned she would be the chairwoman of the Special Judiciary Committee. That was, she said, before she realized how little work the committee does. The panel considered six bills during the 2017-2018 session.

“After hearing everybody’s comments, it has become apparent that it was not intended to be an honor,” said Jordan, a trial attorney who sits on the board of governors for the State Bar of Georgia. “I bring a skill set that can help this body move forward. And if all you’re going to do is put me in a committee and not give me any legislation to actually look at, shame on you.”

The bipartisan rebuke of committee assignments comes a day after Duncan touted the fact that four women will be holding chairmanships this legislative session, compared with two women in those roles last year.

But the women who spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday said the appointments are merely window dressing.

“Make no mistake, the Senate is playing high-stakes baseball,” Unterman said in a likely nod to Duncan’s stint as a minor-league baseball player. “Ladies of the Senate … we’re not even in the ballpark. We’re outside looking over a fence, and we’re trying to look into the ballfield to see who is playing.”

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said having lower representation on powerful committees is part of being in the minority party. Of the Senate’s 15 women, all but two are Democrats.

Mullis said accusations of partisanship in assigning committees are off-base.

“The whining is incorrect when it comes to partisanship here,” he said. “This body has been more bipartisan than probably most bodies in America.”

Unterman — an outspoken supporter of former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who lost in the Republican primary race for governor to Brian Kemp — said she was not sure why she was removed from serving as the health panel chairwoman. She said she believes expected debate involving weakening laws governing Certificate of Need, a complicated health care regulation, could be a reason.

Certificate of Need, or CON, limits health care businesses in adding services that might take profitable business from hospitals. It’s expected to be one of the big-money fights of the 2019 session.

“I was told personally that I did not have the skill set to be able to handle such a complicated issue,” she said. Unterman declined to say who questioned her ability, saying only that it was someone with “a very high authority.”

State Sen. Ben Watson, a Republican from Savannah and a doctor, will now oversee any changes to CON as the new chairman of the Sente Health and Human Services Committee.

Unterman said she does not plan to stay quiet about what she believes is her unfair removal as chairwoman of the committee.

“If they did this to me — one woman, the most powerful woman in the GOP — the question is, what will they do to other women?” she said. “That’s why I moved forward. It takes a whole lot of courage, and I have to survive 38 more days in the Senate chamber.”

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