There are many things about the death this past week of Larry Long that only add to the sense of loss.
He was a devoted husband, dad, grandfather. He was a veteran, having served as an Air Force pilot. He was a retired 41-year employee of Thermal Ceramics. His death was entirely unexpected, coming at age 79 to a man who, until having heart surgery, was in very good health.
And besides all that, he was just a heckuva nice guy.
What makes it worse, somehow, is that for the Columbia County Board of Elections, where he served admirably and capably as chairman, his death came with what seems like terrifically bad timing.
Sure, you don’t really get to decide the timing of your death unless you take your own life. And it’s at least good that before his death, he and the other two members of the Board of Elections were able to settle the matter of hiring Nancy Gay as successor to the now-retired and medically disabled Deborah Marshall.
But many of us still aren’t over the shock of Debbie’s brain surgery a year ago on a malignant brain tumor that left the beautiful, vibrant young woman bedridden and largely uncommunicative. Those feelings still are pretty raw, and right in the midst of it – though, wisely, waiting after Gay’s appointment – Barry Fleming floated the idea of legislation to change the way members of the Board of Elections are appointed.
Also wisely, he pulled back when he saw cautionary opposition to the plan – including that from Long, who worried that the proposal was an effort to politicize the board’s decision-making process in the all-important arena of elections.
In fact, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross hinted as much when he mused that the proposal would have tilted the board’s balance in favor of Republicans.
Currently, the board has three members: One is appointed by the Republican Party (Long’s vacancy, now); another member is appointed by the Democratic Party; and the third member is chosen by the two party appointees, or picked by the probate judge if the party appointees can’t agree.
Fleming’s bill would have expanded the board to five members by keeping the party appointees, and adding one selected by the county commission, one picked by the legislative delegation and a shared appointment from the cities of Harlem and Grovetown.
Assuming all those bodies are dominated by Republicans, that would have yielded a board with four Republicans and one Democrat. And Long, himself a Republican, just didn’t think lopsided setup was fair.
Long also knew that legislative sessions are in two-year cycles, so while Fleming’s bill didn’t move forward this session, it’s still available for action next year. Despite his generally quiet demeanor, Long was fully prepared to fight against the legislation but departs far too soon – and leaves the battle for others.
The question now, with Long gone, is whether the future Republican appointee will put first the interests of the party that appoints him or her, or focuses on the basic fairness of Columbia County elections.
Long devoted the last 12 years of his long and full life to the latter. His legacy of faithful service should demand his successor do likewise.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com, or call 706-868-1222, ext. 106. Follow at www.twitter.com/