As Georgia's first Republican lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle is already in a good position to win the governor's seat in this reddest of red states in 2010.
When he beat right-wing darling Ralph Reed last year to win the GOP nomination, he did so by running to Reed's left. Even though Georgia is now solidly Republican, Cagle has worked to build his likability quotient beyond the boundaries of his own party.
And his maneuvering has paid off. Rather than the contentious legislative session many envisioned, this year's General Assembly has so far been rather tame. "We're having a lovefest with the lieutenant governor," admitted Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker.
Earlier this month, the Charter Systems Act, championed mightily by Cagle all throughout the campaign last year, passed by a huge margin. Only two Democrats voted against the bill, which enables school districts to set up governing bodies to become parent-run charter school districts.
The vote was a political culmination of a months-long Cagle charm offensive.
It started with his tender-loving ads in the general election last fall when he referred to opponent Jim Martin as "a good man" -- which stood in stark contrast to the bitter governor's race. Then there was his appearance at the annual meeting of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. His presence at the nearly all-Democratic Party function way down in Waycross turned some heads back then. Now the minority party sees it's a matter of course with him.
As lieutenant governor, Cagle shrewdly appointed Democratic state Sen. David Adelman from Decatur to chair the Urban Affairs Committee, a move that pacified Atlanta lawmakers. He also appointed Democrats to two other committee chairs. He publicly cautioned members of his party about their plans to impose regressive taxes. With his cautious approach to tax-reform talk, Cagle took a more conservative path than House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, his counterpart in the House who trumpeted a flat tax in the lead-up to the session.
In the Senate, Cagle has overall shown respect toward the opposition when he really doesn't have to, as the Republicans enjoy a 34-22 majority.
While cultivating friends among Democrats, Cagle has laid the groundwork to run for governor as a moderate Republican who can cross party lines.
"Maybe Casey Cagle has hit the right chord," says Dr. William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. "He moves in a conservative way. He is a conservative. But he's not a vociferous conservative, and that may be the approach to which Democrats and Republicans both are responding."
He already proved his "moderate" mettle when he vanquished Ralph Reed, the poster boy for the hard right, in the Republican primary last year. Part of his bipartisan effectiveness as lieutenant governor comes from showing Democrats he's not merely cordial, but also willing to be flexible on some issues.
Boone says Cagle demonstrated that early in the session when he backed away from trying to pass the voter identification law, which most Democrats criticize as discriminatory toward the poor and the elderly. When he realized he didn't have the votes, Cagle decided not to press the issue and, instead, chose to focus on other legislation, such as the Charter Systems Act.
But given the "lovefest" nature he has fostered in the Senate, another question is whether the affable Cagle will alienate hard-line, right-wing members of his own party.
Former state Sen. Chuck Clay, R-Marietta, who is also a former GOP chairman, doesn't think he will. There's a big difference between the protocol of the Senate and the passion of the campaign trail, Clay says. A good politician can navigate effectively in both worlds.
"He enjoys the competition of ideas without taking it personally," Clay says of Cagle. "That's the way Pierre Howard behaved when he was lieutenant governor."
This month, just before the Senate approved school vouchers, Cagle repeatedly cracked up the chamber at-large with his sympathetic line to legislators trying to inject their last-minute arguments as the seconds remaining to vote ticked down. "I'm sure the gentleman is very passionate about what he speaks," he said in his soothing voice.
Cagle was having fun up there on the rostrum, and he was winning.
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