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Posted: December 9, 2009 12:00 a.m.

The battle for speaker is not over

The Republican leadership in the Georgia House worked out an arrangement among themselves last week for the scandal-plagued Glenn Richardson to step down as House speaker and be replaced by Mark Burkhalter in the powerful legislative position.

The high-ranking Republicans hoped to put their problems behind them with the removal of Richardson, but they still have some long-simmering issues to resolve. The decision from on high to change speakers is not sitting well with some of the rank-and-file House Republicans, especially the younger ones who've only served in the legislature for a few terms.

They want the House leaders to schedule an early caucus meeting - before the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 11 - and allow all of the GOP lawmakers to have a vote in electing the next speaker.

Pressure is being applied to the leadership from several directions to call that early vote and the most public indication of it is an e-mail sent by Rep. Michael Harden (R-Toccoa) to his GOP colleagues.

"We cannot truly move on and begin a fresh start until a new Speaker is fully and fairly elected by the entire House," Harden wrote. "We must have an election to truly close this chapter and move forward as a legislative body, and that election should happen before the General Assembly Session begins."

Richardson was forced out of the speaker's job after his former wife, Susan, disclosed in a TV interview that Richardson had an affair with an AGL Resources lobbyist in 2006. That was the same period when the speaker was pushing for passage of a bill that would have resulted in major financial benefits for AGL (the bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate).

Allegations of that relationship were mentioned in an ethics complaint filed against Richardson by Democratic Party official Bobby Kahn in January 2007. A legislative review panel quickly threw out the complaint without holding a hearing or an investigation, a decision that caused much embarrassment when Susan Richardson confirmed that her former husband was indeed involved in that affair.

The media coverage of the Richardson scandal, coupled with concerns that other exposes could be lurking in the near future, has some Republican lawmakers concerned that their majority control of the House of Representatives could be threatened.
It is not enough to replace Richardson as speaker, they contend. Instead, it is time to consider a clean sweep of the entire leadership team.

"We need a fresh face," said one legislator. "If we don't clean things up, somebody's going to clean things up for us."

Several names are being floated as possible candidates for the speakership and other leadership positions.

They include Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), who ran for speaker against Richardson last year and lost; Rep. Jim Cole (R-Forsyth), the House floor leader for Gov. Sonny Perdue; Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), a thoughtful attorney well-versed in public policy matters; Rep. Larry O'Neal (R-Bonaire), the current chairman of the Ways & Means Committee; and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Cassville), a third-term House member from North Georgia.

Rep. Mark Burkhalter (R-Johns Creek), who moves from speaker pro tem to speaker when Richardson's resignation becomes effective Jan. 1, would still be considered the favorite to retain the speaker's post at this point in time.

Under the current House rules, Burkhalter is only required to call a vote within 120 days of becoming speaker. He could theoretically delay that vote until after the 2010 legislative session has adjourned.

Burkhalter has a much calmer personality than the hot-headed Richardson and for that reason can put a friendlier public face on the Republican majority. He is also promising to clean up the party's image at the capitol.

Whether that will be enough to placate the anxious legislators calling for an early vote, of course, remains to be seen.

Prior to Richardson's resignation, Burkhalter was angling for the highly paid position of executive director of the Georgia World Congress Center. He has since indicated that he wants to be speaker for the long term, but there are still rumors floating about that the World Congress Center job will be kept open for him - just in case.

It would probably be a good idea for every legislator, not just Burkhalter, to keep his or her options open.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.


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