This has not been a happy holiday season for Republicans who hold the reins of power at Georgia's capitol. Embarrassing scandals have thrown a harsh light on the ethical shortcomings of the state's political leaders.
The divorced wife of House Speaker Glenn Richardson went on TV and confirmed that the speaker had a "full-out affair" with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist while he was sponsoring legislation that would benefit the gas company.
Pressure from within the House Republican ranks forced Richardson to step down as speaker. The second in command, Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, at first indicated he would serve as a long-term replacement for Richardson.
Three days later, Burkhalter abruptly told his colleagues he had "changed his mind" and wasn't going to run.
Shortly after Burkhalter's exit, a Carrollton newspaper and an Atlanta TV station revealed that Rep. Mark Butler, R-Carrollton, had an affair that lasted more than two years with a woman who worked as a lobbyist for the University of West Georgia.
An Atlanta TV station then aired a sizzling report about Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the Republican frontrunner for governor, attending the 2007 and 2008 Academy Award ceremonies in Hollywood. The Atlanta doctor who picked up the tab for the trips had also asked Oxendine's insurance department to help him in a dispute with an insurance company.
After all that bad publicity, which Democrats will mention at every opportunity during the 2010 election campaigns, you had to figure that at some point the Republicans would catch a break. That may have happened when House Republicans met to nominate the replacement for Richardson as speaker.
The two leading contenders for the position both had personal baggage.
Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Bonaire, while he was the real estate attorney for Gov. Sonny Perdue, was deeply involved in the passage of legislation in 2005 that gave Perdue a $100,000 tax break on some earlier property dealings.
Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had tax problems of his own a few years ago caused by an embezzling employee in his law firm. Ralston ordered an audit of his books and then paid the government the delinquent taxes he owed.
Faced with a choice between O'Neal and Ralston, House Republicans picked Ralston.
"It's a change message," Ralston said. "It's not business as usual anymore."
Ralston said he will make some changes in House rules and committee assignments that might slow down, even if they don't stop entirely, the parade of scandalous events.
He even said: "We are going to have to put the lobbyists and the special interests in the background."
If Ralston is serious, that could mean an end to many of the freebies legislators have been receiving from lobbyists. That would truly be a drastic change.
Shortly after Ralston was nominated to be the next speaker of the House, the old speaker, Richardson, was seen running away from the capitol building with a TV camera crew in hot pursuit. That was a very appropriate symbol of the changes in the Capitol.
(Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)
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