This week’s Courier Herald column:
It was January of 1975. Wheel of Fortune made its television premier. The Atlanta Falcons used the first pick of the NFL draft to add Steve Bartkowski from UCLA to their roster. And down at the Georgia capitol, 27-year-old Calvin Smyre of Columbus was sworn in for the first time as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
48 years and a few months later, hours before the legislature gaveled out Sine Die on April 6th, Representative Smyre gave his farewell speech as the Dean of the Georgia House. His remarks should be required viewing for students of Georgia history, as his time in office represents roughly 1/5th of the time Georgia has been a state.
He’s served under five Speakers, seven Governors, and nine Presidents. A lifelong Democrat, he’s served as a member of the majority party and in the minority party.
Like most freshmen who find their way to Atlanta, Smyre’s start was inauspicious. Then Speaker Tom Murphy was known to “ask” new members to sit down and remain quiet. It didn’t take him long to earn Murphy’s trust, however, and he eventually became one of his strongest members and closest allies.
At one point, Smyre held the titles of Rules Chairman of the House, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, Chair of the House Majority Caucus, and negotiator for the Budget Conference Committee – all at the same time. In a state which had been run by Democrats since the end of reconstruction, those titles indicated his abilities to influence all corners of government that Georgia could touch.
When Republicans assumed control the Governor’s mansion and the legislature, many of his Democratic contemporaries chose to exit the legislature or switch parties. Smyre remained true to his party, his constituents, and to the State of Georgia.
His titles changed. His ability to influence the legislative process did not. He just had to work a little harder for it.
Smyre has spent 48 years of working hard for Georgia. In his remarks he encapsulated his employment experience by getting his first job prior to being elected because of a local political connection. He lost his next job early into his political career because of a vote he cast in the legislature. He went without additional pay other than his part-time legislative salary until a chance meeting with Columbus banker Jimmy Blanchard, who asked him to join Columbus Bank and Trust, now Synovus Corporation. The bank is still his employer today.
A lot of personal life happens when legislators serve their districts part time in Atlanta. 48 years after he was sworn in, Smyre was honored to have his father Carter on the House floor when he gave his remarks. His daughter, however, passed away unexpectedly this December.
There’s a lot to show for the time spent away from his home. He crafted the legislation that moved the Falcons into their first domed stadium, as well as that which created the Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday. He played an influential role in helping Governor Roy Barnes change the state flag.
His ability to make things happen didn’t disappear with Democratic majorities. His role shifted to a true power broker and played a key role in many of Georgia’s more challenging issues facing the state.
He was an active member of the public study committee that led to 2015’s bill which changed Georgia’s gas tax formula and added roughly $1 Billion per year in additional funding for roads and bridges across the state. Behind the scenes, he cajoled Republicans and Democrats alike to get the legislation where the state needed it to be, not where any particular side wanted it to be.
This led to an even more difficult challenge a couple of years later, when after years of talk but inaction, the state passed a bill providing a governance structure for transit in the 13 county metro Atlanta area. At times it seemed both Democrats and Republicans were willing to walk away from a difficult but necessary solution.
Smyre served as the glue that kept it together – even if at times it seemed more like bailing wire. The work may have gotten harder. His results continued to show with significant legislation making it to the Governor’s desk.
Calvin Smyre’s pubic service won’t end here. He is President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
Ambassador will be a fitting official title to end a half century of service. Statesman is the one he’s lived and embodied for 48 years in Georgia’s legislature.