The Jolt: Seeds of power sharing in the Georgia House

Ralston alliance, Committee toppers, and Team Trump departures lead the day
February 18, 2020 - Atlanta - Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D - Decatur, gives a thumbs up after conferring with house speaker David Ralston as the General Assembly returned for the 14th legislative day. Bob Andres /

February 18, 2020 - Atlanta - Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D - Decatur, gives a thumbs up after conferring with house speaker David Ralston as the General Assembly returned for the 14th legislative day. Bob Andres /

The U.S. Senate is still working out its power-sharing agreement with Republicans now that Democrats hold a narrow edge. But in Georgia’s GOP-controlled state house, a quieter shift is underway.

Tucked into a list of new leadership posts released late Wednesday by House Speaker David Ralston was a significant development: Democratic state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (pictured above with Ralston last year) will lead the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee.

She’s the only Democrat to helm any of the state’s 41 House committees, but hers is no ceremonial post. Though the committee doesn’t handle legislation, the joint House-Senate panel oversees the MARTA transit system’s budget.

And Oliver, a veteran DeKalb County legislator first elected to the House in 1986, was seen as a perfect fit for the post, which was previously helmed by Republican state Rep. Deborah Silcox of Buckhead.

We’re told Ralston was adamant that talking about bipartisanship -- a theme of the opening days of the legislative session - wasn’t enough. He wanted to put action behind those words, even if it was a small step.

“They each respect each other despite their differences, and you don’t find many people sharper than Oliver,” said a Ralston deputy.

It didn’t hurt that Oliver lived in MARTA territory - a dwindling number of Republicans represent districts covered by the transit system - and she also boasted a recommendation from Michael Thurmond, DeKalb’s widely respected chief executive.

Will the MARTOC committee be a wellspring of bipartisan compromise? We’ll see. But it could be a start in a divided statehouse.


Of the other changes to state House committee posts, perhaps the most interesting involves state Rep. Barry Fleming, who has long led a House Judiciary panel. Now, he’ll head a special Election Integrity Committee that will vet voting proposals.

In a December op-ed in the Augusta Chronicle, the Harlem Republican promised changes to Georgia’s absentee ballot laws. Here’s a snippet from Fleming:

“Democrats are relying on the always-suspect absentee balloting process to inch ahead in Georgia and other close states. If elections were like coastal cities, absentee balloting would be the shady part of town down near the docks you do not want to wander into because the chance of being shanghaied is significant. Expect the Georgia Legislature to address that in our next session in January.”

One other change to take note: State Rep. Shaw Blackmon becomes the new head of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee after its former leader, Brett Harrell, was defeated in November.

Harrell posted a vote of confidence for Blackmon on Twitter Wednesday. “I have utmost confidence our fiscal and tax policy remains in sound hands,” Harrell wrote.


POSTED: Budget Week continued at the state Capitol Wednesday as the House and Senate Appropriations committees heard from public safety officials about a serious backlog in jury trials and their challenge in keeping corrections facilities fully staffed.

From Maya Prabhu:

“Commissioners of the Department of Juvenile Justice and Department of Corrections said they have struggled to retain officers and often cite the low pay as one reason many leave. For example, DJJ officials said during fiscal 2020, 97% of new corrections officers left the agency.”

And over at Capitol Beat, Dave Williams writes about the jury trial backlog that has resulted following Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton’s order to suspend jury trials as a result of COVID-19. Melton told lawmakers that even after a vaccine is widely distributed, it could take the state up to two years to clear the serious backlog.


Alice O’Lenick, the embattled Gwinnett County elections official, says she isn’t going anywhere, despite calls from Democrats that she resign after telling a GOP audience that some voting rules need to change “so that we at least have a shot at winning.”

O’Lenick told the monthly meeting of the Gwinnett Elections Board that she does not have confidence in the security of the vote and that discussion about issues “is what adults do.”

“My closing remarks are good night,” she said to the virtual audience, just before 10:30 p.m. “See you next month.”


Symbolism was in high supply in Washington Wednesday when U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were sworn into the United States Senate together.

Ossoff took the oath of office with the Hebrew scripture once owned by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the leader of Atlanta’s famed Temple synagogue who was a key ally for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

And in his coat pocket, Ossoff tucked the manifests from the ships that carried his great-grandparents to Ellis Island more than 100 years ago.

For his oath, Warnock used the Bible he received from his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church when he became senior pastor. Wednesday would have been his late father’s 104th birthday.


Surprise! Among the many people shocked that Warnock and Ossoff pulled off their double victory were apparently their new Democratic colleagues in Washington, who were completely unprepared to take control of the Senate in the event they both should win.

From Politico’s Playbook this morning:

“The Democratic takeover of the White House and Congress is complete. But the truth is that the party was caught flat-footed by it: Almost no one expected Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to both win in Georgia — let alone planned for how they’d run Washington if it happened.

The lack of preparation is now causing confusion among congressional Democrats about how they should exercise their newfound power in the critical early days of the administration.”


The Italian adventure has come to an end for the Gingriches. With Donald Trump’s departure from office, many of his ambassadors are now out of office, too, including Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See, Calista Gingrich.

Yesterday the American Embassy to the Holy See wished Gingrich and her husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich “all the best as they return to their home in Virginia.”


Also moving on to greener pastures Wednesday was Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s former governor and Donald Trump’s affable and durable Agriculture Secretary. “Let’s continue to do right and feed everyone,” Perdue wrote on Twitter. “God bless you all, and God bless America’s farmers.”

With traditional celebrations off the table Wednesday night, Georgia Democrats improvised with a virtual “Georgia Democratic Blue Inaugural Ball.”

“We are not the new South, we are the NOW South,” Stacey Abrams told the group, who had gathered online in their “finest couch attire” to take the moment in.

With President Joe Biden in the White House and two Democrats sworn into the United States Senate, it’s been the most successful election cycle for the party in decades.

“I’m proud to call you all co-conspirators for justice,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams.


The new Senate staffing positions are still being hammered out, but Jake Best announced he will stay on as Sen. Jon Ossoff’s press secretary. Ossoff is still looking for a chief of staff.

Sen. Raphael Warnock’s leadership team has not yet been released, but we’re told that Mark Libell - a veteran of former Sen. Doug Jones’ team - will be his top aide.