Named for Ellis Arnall, Georgia's near-mythical progressive governor of the mid-'40s. His reign was brief, just as good works by Georgia legislators are rare. Since most admirable and well-intentioned deeds go unrewarded under the Gold Dome, CL feels obliged to offer kudos where kudos are due.
The Surprise Statesman Award
To Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle
Most Republican lawmakers in Georgia seemed oblivious that the voter backlash their national party suffered in November was aimed at the arrogance, vicious partisanship and shady logrolling that had come to define the modern GOP.
But Cagle got the message loud and clear. As lieutenant governor, he's risen handily to the challenge of providing the kind of sensible, even-handed leadership that's been lacking from the Statehouse in recent years.
For starters, he made it clear he planned to steer clear of such divisive time-wasters as the GOP-backed voter-ID effort. He reached across the aisle to find talent for committee chairmanships, as with David Adelman, D-Atlanta, and Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany. He conferred with House Democrats over the funding shortage for PeachCare. And he wasn't shy about expressing reservations for bad bills, among them the measure to allow folks to bring guns to work.
By all accounts – and we truly mean all – Cagle has guided the Senate with professionalism, fair-mindedness and a bipartisan tone that stands in stark contrast to a House that's devolved into a mean-spirited gulag. When he picked a fight with Richardson over pork in the state budget, Cagle may have been grandstanding, but at least he picked the moral high ground from which to do it.
In short, if Casey is angling for the Governor's Mansion – as one would expect from a lieutenant governor – he's off to a good start.
The Not Content to Sit Still Award
To Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna
As floor leader for an underachieving governor, Golick could have kicked back and rested on his title. Instead, he authored a bill to protect teachers and school officials from retaliation for reporting waste, fraud and abuse.
Georgia already has a whistle-blower law on the books that covers even local governments. But, because of political pressure at the time, school employees were conspicuously exempted. No such problem this go-around; Golick's bill was passed unanimously by the House.
The Courage to Be Right Award
To Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur
Sometimes it takes guts to propose no-brainer legislation. Jones knowingly walked into the lion's den with a bill to allow judges to reconsider sentences for folks punished for doing things that are no longer crimes. Yes, you read that correctly. The bill would specifically have applied to many teenagers convicted of consensual sex acts with other teens prior to the implementation of the so-called "Romeo and Juliet" exemption.
The case of Genarlow Wilson, a former Douglas County High student who's already spent two years behind bars for sex with a minor girl two years his junior, hung heavily over Jones' bill – and the senator was frank in acknowledging the vulgar and insensitive nature of Wilson's behavior in the incident.
But Jones was right that keeping people in jail after repealing the law that sent them there makes a mockery of our legal system. Too bad so many of his Senate colleagues seem more eager to be seen as tough on crime than in seeing justice done.
The Setting a Good Example Award
To Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Decatur
As the only openly gay member of the Legislature (emphasis on "openly"), Drenner doesn't wield much legislative clout in the GOP-controlled House. But she serves a vital role simply by being her friendly and reasonable self around lawmakers who find her at odds with their backward notion of homosexuals as strident and threatening.
As the House lurched toward the drop-dead point for bills, Drenner was tipped off on a planned 11th-hour amendment for a ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians. She swung into action, working legislators on both sides of the aisle to sign up to speak in opposition. As the list got longer, House leaders called for adjournment rather than miring themselves in an extended culture-wars debate.
By many accounts, much of Drenner's success in heading off the noxious measure came from having won the personal respect of her right-wing colleagues – and the example she sets as the mother of two adopted kids. Sometimes decency really is enough.
The Peer Pressure Be Damned Award
To Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton
A thoughtful and moderate legislator, Scott stands apart from the pack of holy rollers and ideologues that includes many House Republicans of his generation. As chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, he put the brakes on the runaway train that was the proposed city of Dunwoody, arguing reasonably that the incorporation of a large chunk of DeKalb County was too big a change to be rushed into without determining how residents would be affected. When the bill finally passed his committee, it carried an amendment to delay a referendum, allowing more time for analysis.
Also, for the second year in a row, he filed an open-records bill that would require government agencies to pay the legal bills of anyone who successfully sues to gain access to public records that were unlawfully withheld. Big surprise: For the second year, the bill went nowhere.
The Cream Still Rises Award
To Sen. David Adelman, D-Atlanta
One of the sharpest and best-informed people in the Legislature, Adelman has had the bad luck of joining the Senate at a time when even moderate Democrats have been largely kicked to the curb. Still, by dint of his strong grasp of issues and ability to work well with others, he was appointed to chair the Senate's Urban Affairs Committee this year. He is also the only Democrat to successfully squire a significant bill through the Senate this session, a measure allowing residents of unincorporated areas to form townships.
The township bill – which had bipartisan support – is important because it would give Georgians control over their local zoning and land-use policies without adding a costly layer of government through the creation of new cities. If successful in becoming law, it could nip the current city-making frenzy in the bud.
The Too Balanced for Their Own Good Award
To Rep. Robby Mumford, R-Conyers, and Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs
Politically, these guys are never going to be inside players, at least under the current House regime. They're simply too moderate and independent to play the game in the necessary self-serving fashion.
Willard, as chairman of the civil Judiciary Committee – an important if unsexy assignment – oversees one of the few committees that doesn't act as a rubber stamp for the whims of the House leadership.
Mumford, who consistently asks nonrhetorical questions to learn more about bills, gave one of the most heartfelt speeches opposing a measure to allow judges to impose the death penalty on 10-2 verdicts.
"Unanimous juries are a cornerstone of this republic," he explained to colleagues who'd apparently skipped Constitutional Law 101. "I implore this House to tread lightly on this fundamental principle."
The death-penalty bill passed anyway. See what we mean?
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