O'Neal to run for Speaker of the House

tfain@macon.comDecember 10, 2009 

State Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, will run for speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives in the wake of a sex scandal that has rocked the House leadership.

O’Neal announced his candidacy Wednesday, e-mailing House colleagues to tell them he planned to seek the speakership. Current Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson plans to resign at the end of the year, following a suicide attempt and the public confirmation that he cheated on his wife with a Capitol lobbyist.

Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter was to succeed Richardson, but Burkhalter announced this week that he doesn’t want the post. Instead, Burkhalter said he’ll call for an open election among the Republican caucus, which holds a majority in the House.

“What we need the most right now is somebody to calm things down,” said O’Neal, chairman of the House’s tax-code-writing Ways and Means Committee. “We can’t have any distractions. We’re facing (an economic) situation I’ve not known in my lifetime, and I’m a pretty old guy.”

O’Neal, 60, promised a different style than Richardson’s boisterous and often confrontational ways.

He acknowledged that Richardson’s affair was common knowledge at the Capitol following the speaker’s divorce in early 2008. But he said it was the stunning interview Richardson’s ex-wife gave an Atlanta television station late last month that turned the problem into “too much of a distraction.”

Asked Wednesday if he was in the room the night Richardson, Burkhalter, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen and Gov. Sonny Perdue met to discuss Richardson’s future, O’Neal said he was.

“Several people (were) in that room, all very close to Glenn Richardson ... all there for him, personally.”

O’Neal said no succession plan was put in place that night that he knew of, and he said he didn’t know why Burkhalter stepped away from the speakership.

He described himself as “a judge-not-and-I-won’t-be-judged kind of guy, as long as the work gets done.” The plan for House Republicans should be to “calm down, get a consensus, get back to work,” he said.

O’Neal has been close to Perdue — who also is from Houston County — and some feel that will hurt his candidacy among GOP legislators who want to keep the House independent from the governor’s office.

O’Neal also authored legislation that, after an amendment, gave Perdue a retroactive tax break several years ago.

That bit of controversy may dog him as the House looks to sweep recent scandalous headlines into the past.

O’Neal has addressed the tax break issue many times and said he didn’t know the governor would benefit from the tax break, though he probably should have. The bill in question was meant to bring Georgia’s tax code in line with federal codes, he has said.

“I didn’t think of (the governor’s tax situation) at all,” O’Neal told The Telegraph in 2007 amid an ethics complaint that was eventually dismissed. “This was not even on the radar screen. This was a smaller part of a huge bill.”

O’Neal appears to be popular in the House of Representatives, and his position as Ways and Means Committee chairman made him a power broker at the Capitol.

Still, he’ll have to line up support to become speaker, and that process was stymied this week because O’Neal had a bad case of the flu as news broke that Burkhalter wouldn’t be a permanent speaker.

State Reps. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, and Bill Hembree, R-Winston, have announced their own runs for the speakership.

Other candidates also may step forward, and state Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is a possibility. He mounted a challenge to the speaker before the 2008 legislative session but stepped aside after Richardson showed signs of a gentler leadership style.

A formal election for speaker won’t take place until after the General Assembly convenes in Atlanta next month, but the race likely will be decided before then. House Republicans, who have the numbers to elect their own speaker without input from Democrats, plan to meet Friday in Atlanta to hash out this and other leadership questions. A caucus vote is expected before the end of the month.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, called O’Neal “the right guy at the right time” for the speakership. He said O’Neal is well respected and “will be a great speaker of the house.”

“We need his wisdom, his integrity, his respect among colleagues and all those involved in the Capitol,” said Peake, who serves on O’Neal’s Ways and Means Committee.

Speaker of the house is one of the most powerful positions in state government, largely because the speaker exercises a lot of control over which legislation moves forward at the Capitol. The job pays about $99,000 a year.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 744-4213.

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