Mullis, Ralston Departures Shift Power From Georgia Mountains

This week’s Courier Herald column.

Senator Jeff Mullis is winding down a 22-year career in the Georgia General Assembly.  A commanding presence at Georgia’s Capitol, he has served as the Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee for the past eight years.  He’s probably the most powerful legislator most of you have never heard of.

To understand that last sentence, you’ll have to indulge a bit of inside baseball of how Georgia’s Senate is structured and how the legislative process works.  While the Lieutenant Governor presides over the chamber, the powers and duties of the LG are actually granted by the Senate’s rules, which can and do change based on the LG’s relationship with the majority party.

When the Lieutenant Governor and the Senate Majority are of the same party, this usually ends in some sort of power sharing agreement.  This traditionally has put the decisions on committee chairs to a committee on committees. 

If that’s all gobbledygook to you, the net result is this.  Unlike the Georgia House, where power ultimately rests with the Speaker, at any given time there is not one single person in charge of the Senate. 

Yet the Senators, best understood as a collection of 57 independent contractors, need someone they can trust to get the bills they want to the floor for a vote, and to sometimes save them from themselves to keep bad legislation away as well.  The Rules chair will often hold up a House bill (or all House Bills) until the House agrees to pass a bill that is a priority of the Senate.

A person that can decide which bills get a vote and which don’t holds great power.  With great power comes great responsibility. 

Mullis has handled this task by mixing strong doses of humility and self-deprecation with, when needed, ruthless authoritarianism.  To be clear, that last line is a complement.

While many in political life take themselves and their roles too seriously, Mullis has gone out of his way to demonstrate, in Capitol parlance, he is “in on the joke”.  He’s famous for choosing walk in music to late session Rules Committee meetings, which could range from something befitting a WWE match to the theme music from The Price Is Right.

He’s also willing to take shots at himself.  My first memory of Senator Mullis from the Senate floor was years ago, during “morning orders” when Senators get a minute or three to say whatever is on their mind.  To cut the tension of that particular day, he asked to speak last, and when recognized, held up a jar of preserves that had been left on each Senator’s desk by a well-wisher of the day.

Mullis, who prides himself on his unwillingness to skip a meal, asked who keeps leaving these Georgia Grown food stuffs on each Senator’s desk.  He then objected to the practice for those trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions to slim down as the “Chairman of the Fit and Trim Caucus”.  He of course got a laugh from the chamber, and the tension of the morning was eased a bit.

A person who understands both the power that he holds and how to use it effectively will generally be able to represent his district and region well.  Mullis is from Chickamauga, a mountain community near the Tennessee and Alabama state lines.  The voters from his district will be swapping a Rules Chairman for a Senate freshman.

Note that due to the death of Speaker David Ralston, the nearby community of Blue Ridge will also be losing significant clout in their representation at the Capitol.  That’s two of Georgia’s most powerful positions, leaving the North Georgia mountains.

The Speaker’s gavel has made a stop in North Fulton County, with Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones becoming the state’s first female speaker of the House.  In January, Republicans will nominate and the House will elect Jon Burns of Newington, moving the gavel to Southeast Georgia. 

A new Senate Rules chair has not been named as of this writing, but rumored candidates are not from mountain region.  The current highest ranking legislator from the region will be Senator Steve Gooch, the Senate’s newly elected Majority Leader from Dahlonega.  Gooch is an effective and pragmatic problem solver, and becomes the point person for keeping the issues of rural north Georgia at the forefront.

Voters in Georgia’s 7th House district, vacated by the death of Speaker Ralston, have a chance to preserve some of his capitol relationships in their representation if not his title.  His widow, Sheree Ralston, has announced her intention to seek the seat, to complete the “unfinished business” of her late husband.

The net result, however, is that in January Jeff Mullis and David Ralston will not be brokering deals on behalf of the voters in Northwest Georgia.  The geographic power shift to other regions of the state, while subtle to most, will be very real under Georgia’s gold dome.

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