Named for Ellis Arnall, the reformist governor who led Georgia in the '30s and '40s, the Arnies Awards celebrate the men and women under the Gold Dome who refused to play in the mud and tried to actually improve the Peach State.
The "Gone Too Soon" Award
In mid-February, the Decatur lawyer announced that she wouldn't seek a seventh term and would instead become the executive director of GreenLaw, one of the state's top environmental law firms. The law firm's gain is Georgia's loss. Since 1998, Stuckey-Benfield, one of the General Assembly's sharpest and most dedicated liberals, has played a key role in helping push back against metro Atlanta water grabs, boneheaded abortion bills, and, perhaps most of all, strengthening justice in Georgia by focusing on the death penalty, eyewitness identification reform, and boosting public defenders. ("She was a stalwart," said one public-interest lobbyist.) Next time you sip a high-gravity beer, thank Stuckey-Benfield — she helped legalize the brews in Georgia. The mother of two said she needed more time to raise her family. But political observers noted that Stuckey-Benfield was among the many Democrats screwed over during last summer's redrawing of political maps by the GOP. (Republicans drew Democrats into the same districts in an attempt to flush white Democrats from the Gold Dome.) Stuckey-Benfield's was among them, which meant she would have faced Howard Mosby, a black Democrat who has represented a majority black district since 2003. Lawmakers might regret that decision once they see how much more effective Stuckey-Benfield will be when suing the state for its idiotic environmental policies than fighting the majority party in the House.
The "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" Award
Reps. Yasmin Neal, D-Jonesboro and Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta
In response to legislation introduced by state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, that would have limited abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, with a few exceptions (the bill eventually passed), the relatively unknown Jonesboro Democrat proposed similar restrictions on a very private and invasive procedure — vasectomies. According to House Bill 1116, "a vasectomy may only be performed to avert the death of the man or avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the man." The aim of the tongue-in-cheek legislation: "Consider the feelings of a woman, if only for a moment," she told the AJC in late February. The bill dovetailed nicely with a measure by Holcomb, who, in response to legislation that would require Georgians receiving benefits to be tested for drugs, proposed that lawmakers do the same. Both pieces of legislation failed to gain traction but earned national headlines for Neal and Holcomb — and forced the Republicans to actually consider how they were treating the targets of their bills.
The "The People Politely Decline to Build Your Coliseum" Award
Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Suwanee
Everyone who's opposed to the idea of up to $400 million in public cash being used to help a billionaire football team owner build a new stadium should thank the first-term lawmaker for actually bringing up the topic under the Gold Dome this year. Everyone else, it appears, won't touch the subject. Late into the session, Dudgeon, the vice president of research at an Alpharetta video-game company (!), introduced a resolution along with the support of at least five other House reps stating that public cash should not be used to help build the new sports arena, which would be located along Northside Drive near the Georgia Dome. Sure, the resolution, which is basically just a statement, won't stop the project. But it's a shot across the bow — and an indication that there just might be a fight for using taxpayer dollars to stroke Arthur Blank's ego.
The "Break Ranks, Show Class" Award
Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, and Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody
It takes chutzpah to publicly stray from the herd in the Legislature — especially on such red-meat, hot-button issues as abortion. Cooper and Millar deserve credit for doing so. When lawmakers were preparing to vote on a bill that would limit abortions, Cooper took the well and added a shot of science and caution to the discussion. The Cobb County rep knows that of which she speaks; she's a veteran nurse with two master's degrees, wrote a nursing textbook, and chairs the House's Health & Human Services Committee. She's also one of the Gold Dome's most hardcore Republicans. In a brave speech in front of lawmakers during an emotional three-hour debate, Cooper called out the bill's sponsor for basing his talking points on shoddy science, openly denounced anti-abortion activists who'd threatened witnesses in the past, and warned of the bill's potential to send women to other states to seek an abortion. Millar blasted McKillip's bill from the well and on Twitter, saying, "[I] believe this bill is being done to aid re-election of certain officials." Another piece of legislation that would've prohibited abortion coverage under the state's employee health care plan didn't win Millar's support, he said, because it didn't provide exceptions for rape or incest. Granted, the two weren't the only elephants to vote against the bad bills. But such candor and rejection of GOP groupthink is needed in much larger doses under the Gold Dome, which teeters on the brink of the Republicans enjoying a constitutional majority in both chambers.
The "Superwoman" Award
State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna
On Feb. 29, just before the state House of Representatives approved legislation that would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy (even in cases where the child might not be born alive or die soon after being delivered), lawmakers watched a video recorded the day before. In it, Evans, just hours from giving birth, asked her colleagues how an expectant woman might feel if strangers asked questions about the pregnancy even if the mother knew the baby would not survive. "I can't even imagine having to answer those questions knowing I was carrying a child who might not live outside my hospital stay," she was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in the video. At 9 a.m. the following Monday, she was back in committee to cast votes on bills that would require Georgians seeking public benefits to take drug tests. "Here's a woman who had every reason not to be there," said one Gold Dome watcher. "And not only that, but she's fitting in her suits!" To a lawmaker who remembered the importance of her vote and the reason she serves under the Gold Dome, we raise a glass of much-needed champagne in her direction.
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