OPINION: Why Georgia Senate, once cool and calm, is now kind of crazy

Rudy Giuliani listens to testimony during a subcommittee meeting of the Georgia Senate judiciary committee at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Dec. 3, 2020. Giuliani brought fellow lawyers and witnesses who alleged serious voting problems in Georgia and asked that the Georgia Legislature choose the state's electors. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Rudy Giuliani listens to testimony during a subcommittee meeting of the Georgia Senate judiciary committee at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Dec. 3, 2020. Giuliani brought fellow lawyers and witnesses who alleged serious voting problems in Georgia and asked that the Georgia Legislature choose the state's electors. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

More than 20 years ago, a veteran lobbyist explained how stuff works at the Gold Dome: “They pass a bill in the House because they know eventually someone in the Senate is gonna read it.”

The state Senate, with less than a third of the bodies (56) of the 180-member House, was said to be less cacophonic, a place where reason could thrive and bad legislation could be smothered or at least be made less bad. You remember civics class? The U.S. Senate was dreamed up as the saucer to cool hot tea boiling over in the House.

Well, the roles have flipped in Georgia, as the Senate is where the better conspiracy theories are played out in committee meetings and harsher legislation is dreamed up to limit voting.

Last week, senators passed a bill to end no-excuse absentee voting, as Republicans in the two legislative chambers race to come up with bills in response to Donald Trump’s Big Lie that his election was stolen. The bill was popular with most Senate Republicans, although four dodged the vote, unable to hold their noses and vote “yes” but not nutty enough to vote “no” and get the #StoptheSteal voters shouting at them.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, from Marietta, was one of those four. As a doctor, I suppose she remembered the oath to “first, do no harm.” After her non-vote, she told an AJC reporter she opposes eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, especially since changes were being made to ID requirements.

“For that reason,” she said, “I was not comfortable voting for it, but I wanted the bill to move forward in the process and get to a compromise bill.”

In the House, that is.

That same day, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, told the AJC that the chambers’ roles had flipped. “The Georgia House is becoming the more deliberative body akin to what the U.S. Senate is supposed to be — a chamber that focuses on important, weighty issues,” he said. “While partisanship exists on certain bills, we also frequently come together to work in a bipartisan manner.”

The Georgia Senate is now the place for hijinks, drama and a healthy splash of crazy.

If you want to witness the budding civil war in Georgia’s GOP take place — the battle between the ardent Trumpies and the “Let’s move on” crowd — then visit the Senate.

As the debate on the Senate bill raged, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan left the room in protest and talked to the media from a darkened office while watching the proceedings on TV. You remember Duncan as the fellow who pushed back very publicly on Trump’s incessant whining about election fraud and the repeated insane conspiracies being floated by the faithful.

Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan high-tailed himself off the Senate floor to an office to protest a vote on limiting voting procedures. Photo by Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

Duncan, who declined to speak with me, was one of the triumvirate of Georgia pols (along with Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger) who frequently pushed back against the president.

In fact, Duncan was so public — there were appearances on CNN and Meet the Press, among others — that Republicans think he is up to something. And that he really likes TV makeup.

A few weeks after the November election, Duncan got on CNN and referred to the mass hysteria, saying, “I think we’re better than this.”

“No, we’re not!” responded senators, who clung to Trump’s narrative as if it were a security blanket.

Rudy Giuliani was called in to testify — twice — at Senate hearings, as were other conspiracy theorists. (Rudy did one hearing for the House via Zoom.) Also, a foursome of GOP senators sought a special session to “address structural issues with our voting system before the January runoff” election and maybe even “take back the power to appoint electors.”

Kemp shot that down, so at least 16 GOP state senators joined in on the outlandish Texas lawsuit to toss out Joe Biden’s victory in the Peach State. (Just a dozen of the 103 Republicans in the House joined in.) The U.S. Supreme Court quickly tossed that. Then at least five state senators signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging him to delay congressional certification of the Electoral College votes. The letter was not delivered.

Senators have told me that they are merely responding to the wave of angst and anger from their constituents. However, much of that anger and angst was inflamed by them. A perfect circle.

Why is this? First, the state Senate is like AA-ball in the minor leagues (the House being A-ball) and many senators see themselves as destined for major league greatness. For instance, state Sen. Burt Jones, who was in the midst of much of the post-election doings, sees himself as a governor or something else grand. The AJC’s retired political columnist Jim Galloway said if you go into the state Senate and yell, “Hey Congressman!” 56 heads will swivel.

Also, the GOP in the state Senate has a more comfortable margin over the Dems, 34-22, compared to 103-77 in the House, so they can be less worrisome regarding compromise.

Biden’s victory, however, followed by Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s U.S. Senate wins, have given state Republicans a fatalistic view of the future, hence the nipping and tucking of election code to gain an electoral edge and delay the inevitable Democratic takeover of Georgia.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan (R-Carrolton), left, is congratulated after SB 241 passed in the Senate Chambers during crossover day in the legislative session at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on March 8, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

To get a sense of what is going on, I called a few people who’ve been around.

Fran Millar, a Republican from Dunwoody who sat — and often stood — in both chambers until leaving office in 2019, was the lone Republican in the DeKalb County delegation (there are none now) and thrived on a mixture of sharp elbows and compromise. He was not a fan of Sunday voting and was criticized about it in 2014 by Warnock, who was then full-time pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. On the other hand, Millar supports no-excuses absentee voting.

“The Senate has been more ‘you fight your battles and then civility returns when you walk out;’ but some of that is gone,” said Millar. “In politics, ‘compromise’ is a dirty word. That filters down from Washington.”

Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver represents central DeKalb and has been in the Capitol, off and on, for nearly 35 years, serving in both chambers.

“The Senate is a lot stranger than I’ve seen in a long time,” she said. “Duncan doesn’t care what (the senators) think and they don’t care what he thinks.”

She thinks the antics are mostly theater for the folks back home. “I have a hard time believing those guys (the GOP senators, that is, and almost all are guys) believe what they say,” she said.

Wayne Garner was a state senator in the 1980s and 1990s, when most of the rural Democrats like him were conservative. He later headed the state prison system and now lobbies a bit.

“I don’t know what’s going on in the Senate,” said Garner. “The House has become more deliberative than the Senate. I think (House Speaker David) Ralston keeps a pretty good finger on things.”

Ralston has said he’s reluctant to kill no-excuses absentee voting. So the senator who said the House will straighten out things just might be onto something.