Georgia’s political power is not what it was

How far we have fallen.

Today Georgia finds itself in the weakest political position it has ever been at the national level, at least for the last six decades.

Currently, there is virtually no direct link to the party in power at the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. And Georgia is at risk of being left out in the political cold when it comes to power and influence.

Take the battle over the $1.75 billion appropriation for new F-22 fighter jets. Both U.S. senators from Georgia — Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson — had placed the continued funding for the F-22s at the top of their political agenda. But their powers of persuasion failed when even many of their fellow Republicans voted against the stealth fighter that’s partly made in Georgia.

And that’s only one example.

There is no one from Georgia holding a senior level position or playing a major role of political influence in the administration of President Barack Obama on issues that directly impact our state.

Of course, part of that is politics.

Georgia, a decidedly red state, voted for Republican nominee John McCain rather than for Obama in November.

We are in a state with two Republican senators who often are the odd men out in the upper chamber of Congress where Democrats have an overwhelming majority.

Seven of the 13 members from Georgia’s congressional delegation are Republicans, but the U.S. House also is solidly Democratic. Despite being members of the House majority, even Georgia’s six Democratic representatives are low in the political pecking order at the Capitol. Not one of them has a committee chairmanship. And it certainly doesn’t help that two of the six — Jim Marshall (D-Macon) and John Barrow (D-Savannah) — often vote with Republicans rather than with their own party.

And of course, all the top leaders at the state capitol also are Republicans, which means they have few friends in Washington D.C. these days.

Georgia’s position of weakness does not bode well as the state tries to figure out how it’s going to create a three-state (Georgia, Alabama and Florida) solution on water to ensure that metro Atlanta — and the rest of the state — retain the ability to make withdrawals from Lake Lanier in the future. A federal judge has given Georgia until 2012 to find a solution, before turning off the faucet at Lake Lanier.

What a difference for Georgia to find itself on the fringes of political power in Washington D.C. after years of being a major player on the national stage.

From 1914 to 1965, the late Carl Vinson served in the U.S. House of Representatives becoming the ranking Democratic member in the early 1920s. He was the first representative to serve more that 50 years in the House, and he undoubtedly was one of the most powerful men in Washington.

There also was U.S. Senator Richard B. Russell, a former Georgia governor who served in the senate from 1933 until his death in 1971. When he died, he was the most senior member of the U.S. Senate and once held leadership positions on the all-powerful Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee.

Thanks to Vinson and Russell, Georgia became a favorite site for military installations and bases.

Their power was enhanced by powerful Atlanta business leaders — especially Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff — who was instrumental in getting the Centers for Disease Control based in Georgia.

In the 1960s, Georgia gained national prominence as the base of the Civil Rights Movement led by Atlantan Martin Luther King Jr.

President John Kennedy, his brother U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson were in frequent contact with local leaders, such as Gov. Carl Sanders, the late Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and businessman J.B. Fuqua, who helped Georgia make the difficult transition from a segregated society to an integrated one.

The 1970s saw the emergence of a new generation of national leaders from Georgia. U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) became a powerful force as chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

And of course, former Gov. Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 giving Georgians extraordinary influence in Washington D.C. during his four-year term.

In the 1980s, Nunn’s influence continued to strengthen. Atlanta had a mayor with an international profile — former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young. And during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, Georgia elected Republican Mack Mattingly, its first Republican U.S. Senator since Reconstruction, who worked closely with the Republican administration.

Over on the House side, Republican Newt Gingrich got elected in 1978 and saw his political star rise during the 1980s culminating with him becoming Speaker of the House in 1994.

Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller (then a bonafide Democrat) and Sen. Nunn were instrumental in getting Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton elected president. Once again, Georgia was in an enviable position by having a bunch of friends in top-level positions in Washington.

When President Georgia W. Bush took office, once again Georgia had strong ties — including Senators Miller, Chambliss and Isakson. Two other Georgians especially close to the Bush administration were Eric Tanenblatt, a senior managing director of a major law firm; and businessman Fred Cooper.

And, of course, when Gov. Sonny Perdue was elected as the first Republican governor from Georgia in more than 100 years, he found friends in the nation’s capitol.

But since 2006, when Democrats became the majority party in Congress, Georgia’s power has dimmed to darkness.

It has become even more pronounced since Obama was elected president.

If it weren’t for leaders in the urban core of Atlanta, we might as well turn out our national political lights.

Among the metro Atlanta luminaries who have some clout with the new administration are: State Senator David Adelman, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Representatives John Lewis, David Scott and Hank Johnson as well as political power broker Gene Duffy. Former Sen. Nunn and his cohort Ted Turner also can get their phone calls returned.

And two Atlanta mayoral candidates were early supporters of Obama — City Council President Lisa Borders and State Senator Kasim Reed.

Other people who know people include attorney Keith Mason, Georgia Tech’s Catherine Ross, search consultant Veronica Biggins, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott.

But while it’s good to have friends who have friends, Georgia’s political power is a faint shadow of what it once was

That’s an unpleasant position for a state so accustomed to standing in the center of power.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

4 replies
  1. Greg says:

    As long as Georgia remains entrenched in the red state column, we will continue to be relegated to the political sidelines. States like Virginia, North Carolina, and even Tennessee have found political balance. Unfortunately, we are destined to be grouped in a category with Alabama and Mississippi – staunchly conservative and politically ostracized. Metro Atlanta could potentially suffer as well.Report

    Reply
  2. Maria says:

    Chris,
    I certainly respect your point of view.
    Rep. John Lewis (who is also my congressman) is the conscience of Congress, which is an important role. But despite his reputation and tenure in Congress, he does not chair any committee and he certainly doesn’t have the sway that some of our former congressmen have had (for better or for worse), such as Newt Gingrich and Carl Vinson.
    Thanks for sharing.
    MariaReport

    Reply
  3. Joeventures says:

    While on the one hand I do not envy the awkward position Isakson and Chambliss must feel they are in, I am also saddened by the lack of courage they’ve shown in the face of the loud wing of their party.

    Surely Isakson and Chambliss could have gained some political leverage by not opposing the shutdown of the F-22 line. Considering the waste represented by the F-22, our two Senators have had more than ample time to prepare for something to take its place.

    Now, instead, they are not only left in a position of being Republicans in a Democratic Congress & President, but they are also left in a position where they somehow feel they can’t do anything but dig in their heels on nearly every issue — on principle.

    This is both bad for them, and bad for Georgia.Report

    Reply

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