OPINION: At the height of their power, some lawmakers are leaving it behind

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

In the Georgia General Assembly, power is accrued over years through titles and tenure. The highest-ranking and longest-serving call the shots, while rest can only watch and learn, or chafe while they wait their turn.

But so far this year, several of the most powerful lawmakers in the Capitol have announced they’re leaving their jobs. The reasons for leaving vary as much as their districts, and others could still lose election. The result will be hundreds of years of institutional knowledge leaving the Capitol.

Among those going are House Appropriations Committee chair Terry England, R-Auburn, and state Rep. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest-serving member of the House.

Senate Rules Committee chair Jeff Mullis, R-Chicamauga, and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, the head of the Senate committee that oversees higher education in the state, have also recently announced their retirements.

Some departures are driven by personal reasons, others are pure politics. Some moderate Republicans know they likely can’t survive in Donald Trump’s GOP, while ambitious Democrats, frustrated at the slow progress toward a majority, are looking for other jobs.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan decided to exit the stage after battling Donald Trump for months. Senate President Pro Tem, Butch Miller, is running for Duncan’s seat. But that means neither he, nor others running for higher office including state Sen. Tyler Harper, state Sen. Jen Jordan, and state Rep. Bee Nguyen will be back in the Legislature in 2023.

England said one of the reasons he’s not staying longer, despite the immense power of his role appropriating the state’s $30 billion annual budget, is that he’s just exhausted by the job.

“It isn’t fun anymore,” he said. “When you get to the point of dread…it’s time to let somebody else do it.”

On the day we met for an interview in his Capitol office, a still-cheerful England had been in since 6:30 a.m.. His dinner most nights for the previous two weeks had been a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Requests for favors are a constant, as are trips around the state visiting state-funded programs when the Legislature is not in session.

He had considered retiring before this year, but he said the deaths in quick succession of three of his closest friends in the Capitol, including state Senate Appropriations chair Jack Hill in 2020, weighed heavily on his decision to go now.

“Yeah, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “That was, and still is, very difficult.”

England said he and Hill had both considered retiring but wanted to stagger their departures to leave at least one of them in place for a session to ensure a smooth transition to other leaders. Hill died suddenly while working at his office in Reidsville.

“I beat myself up because that entire day I kept saying, ‘I need to call Jack.’ But I got busy and all of a sudden the day was gone.”

The advice he’d leave for younger members is to go out into the state to see what they’re spending taxpayers’ money on. “It’s a huge jigsaw puzzle and to understand how the pieces fit together you can’t let people come and tell you about it. You’ve got to go see it.”

Smyre has his own reasons for heading out now. He was elected in 1974, when gas was 49 cents a gallon and a Black lawmaker had never held the kind of power he would eventually accrue.

Nixon had just resigned and the Watergate scandal drove a turnover of 66 seats in the state House. Smyre said he was forced to quickly find a place to make an impact and that he sees a similar generational change coming for the House and Senate in 2022.

“With all the exits, all of the people running for higher office and so many retirements, my mind reflected back to 1974,” he said in an interview in his office this week. “That was a start-over. And so this being another start-over was driving my antenna to retire.”

In September of last year, President Joe Biden nominated Smyre to be U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. And after 48 years in the state House, he said he’s ready to go.

But with him he’ll take the experience of chairing the House Rules Committee, the state Democratic Party, the Democratic caucus, and serving as a governor’s floor leader, roles he sometimes played simultaneously.

Smyre said he learned early not to leave the Capitol often, since he’d invariably get a call from Gov. Zell Miller or Speaker Tom Murphy to return.

He also learned the value of mastering the House rules and of resisting the considerable temptation to burn bridges, even with the colleagues who occasionally enraged him.

“I learned that the person that you may not like on Monday, you may need on Thursday,” he said. “You build your career based on legislative experience, maintaining relationships, and honoring the institution.”

A key ally for Smyre has been Republican House Speaker David Ralston. That’s led to Smyre’s key role in passing the state’s Hate Crimes bill after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, last year’s overhaul of the Citizens’ Arrest law, and significant transportation funding.

But after 48 years, he was reluctant to point to any accomplishments he’s proud of on his own, other than establishing the King holiday in Georgia, which he called, “a bell ring for us.” Everything else, he said, was a collaboration that he wouldn’t take credit for.

Like Smyre, England was also reluctant to point to any accomplishments he’s proud of, saying everything he’s done has been thanks to other people, not him alone.

England said his message to voters at the end of his time at the Capitol will be the same as his message to his colleagues.

“Just thank you for the chance to do this job.”

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