Tuesday, December 8, 2009

House Turmoil Continues; Burkhalter Won't Seek Speakership After January

By Dick Pettys
InsiderAdvantage Georgia

The turmoil continues in the Geogia House. Presumed Speaker-to-be Mark Burkhalter announced late Monday he will not be a candidate for the job on a permanent basis and will call an election for a new Speaker during the first week of the upcoming session.

The announcement, which came around 6:30 p.m., capped another day in which rumors swirled over the office, which will be held until Jan. 1 by Glenn Richardson. Richardson dramatically resigned last week, several weeks after acknowledging a suicide attempt and only a few days after his ex-wife engaged in a politically devastating TV interview.

Richardson’s resignation activated a provision which makes Burkhalter, currently Speaker pro-tem, the Speaker for up to 120 days. But because Richardson’s resignation isn’t effective until Jan. 1, that potentially put the election of a new Speaker past the point at which the upcoming session would adjourn.

There were angry grumblings among back-benchers that they would have no say in this key election and there was talk of challenges from a variety of sources.

Most important to some, however, was the perceived need to vet Burkhalter to ensure there was nothing damaging in his past that could, like Richardson, help to bring him down.

Said one veteran lawmaker, speaking completely on background: “People want to meet and discuss this. People would like him to be Speaker if there is nothing in his background that could embarrass the (Republican) Caucus. He’s got the experience, the temperament. The fear is, we don’t know if there is something that could put us back in the same situation.”

Another high-ranking Republican, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "In looking toward a new Speaker, they'd better be very careful because we have been worried about one set of problems when we could easily choose a new Speaker who would bring busisness and legislative transactions that would lead to an immediate attack by the Democrats."

Richardson was the subject of an ethics complaint in 2007 alleging he co-sponsored legislation to benefit a company that employed a lobbyist with whom he was having an affair. The complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence, but Richardson’s ex-wife told TV reporter Dale Russell she had the e-mails proving there was an affair.

Potential candidates include Rep. David Ralston, who unsuccessfully challenged Richardson’s re-election in 2008. But Larry O’Neal’s name was increasingly being mentioned. O’Neal, a soft-spoken accountant, is chairman of the tax-writing House Appropriations Committee. It was unclear what Majority Leader Jerry Keen’s ambitions might be.

Political analyst and pollster Matt Towery said:"This decision by Mark really does not shock me at all. As I said to those who interviewed me over the past few days, Mark would take a very business-like approach to the House of Representatives. I've had no recent communication with him but I know him well enough to see that he assessed that the best interests of the House would be best served with a Speaker who would have the intentions of serving many more years,

"As I hinted in my interviews, Mark may ultimately seek other significant alternatives and my guess is that, taking everything into account, he did what he thought was best for his caucus and for the House.

"On a personal note, regardless of what led Mark to this decision, I am certain that he would have made one of the greatest Speakers in the history of the Georgia House because he is one of the most gifted legislators I have ever known or served with."

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