The speculation went wild - as wild as such things can get in the mind-numbingly boring legal world - as soon as Judge Robert Lyn Allgood made his surprise announcement that he was leaving his post in superior court for a return to a lucrative life as a lawyer.
Who will be his replacement? Lots of names immediately surfaced: District Attorney Danny Craig. Republican attorney Ben Jackson. Augusta Solicitor Sheryl Jolly. Richmond County Attorney Jim Wall. Would one of them get the nod, or someone else?
Or, almost as importantly, which local politician would demonstrate his pull with Gov. Sonny Perdue by convincing the governor to pick his man (or woman)? Would it be state Sen. Don Cheeks, whose switch from the Demo-crats to Republi-cans gave Perdue a majority in the Senate? Or would it be state Sen. Randy Hall, whose astounding win over ex-Sen. Charles Walker cemented that majority and took a thorn from the GOPs side?
Interestingly, the choice may not fall to any of them. And it may be a lot closer to home. As state Sen. Joey Brush says, The job is Barry Flemings if he wants it.
People like Craig and Jolly would certainly seem to have an edge in experience. So why does Fleming have a better shot at the job?
One big reason: He has the right party label.
Its important to remember that just as Cheeks switched parties to give power to the GOP, Perdue became a Republican after serving in the Legislature as a Democrat. The party-switcher tag dogged him during the campaign last year; his primary opponents, including Columbia Coun-tys own Linda Schrenko, continually reminded voters of the switch in an effort to make loyal Republicans leery of Perdue.
Perdue won anyway, without a runoff, and then surprisingly beat Roy Barnes. Ever since, Republicans have been thrilled at taking the Governors Mansion, but still arent convinced the governor is true GOP blue.
As a result, Perdues first judicial appointment will be closely watched. Theres no way he will give the job to a Democrat, even one with as much crossover appeal as Craig, or the inclusion attraction of Jolly.
So whos left? Jackson wants it too badly. Sen. Hall, an attorney, is too valuable; giving him the post could give back the Senate seat to Walker. Bobby Christine? The Columbia County prosecutor, a protg of Craigs, is a card-carrying Republican, but wont even apply for the job if Craig does.
And so, we come to Barry Fleming. He seems young, but hes actually a year older than Judge Albert Pickett was when he was appointed to the bench. Even though he worked for Democrats in his political youth, Flemings Republican credentials are solid, and so is his House district; if Fleming took the judgeship, a Republican would almost certainly be elected to replace him. Barry makes it easy for Perdue, says state Rep. Ben Harbin.
The decision to seek the post isnt easy for Fleming, however. Theres no doubt that I want to do it, Fleming says. Its just a matter of when. I knew I wanted to be a judge someday, but I didnt know it would be so soon.
How would he do as a judge? Fleming earned a reputation as a thoughtful, studious county commissioner - qualities hes using to study this potential career move. And he has nearly 10 years work in civil law, a huge part of the judges cases.
But more than anything else, Fleming has an R after his name. Even before experience and reputation, that may determine who becomes our areas next superior court judge.
And this, to put it bluntly, is why party labels are important in the election of a governor. Remember that the next time someone fatuously claims to vote for the man, not the party.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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