Midstate freshmen learned the ropes at Capitol

mlee@macon.comMarch 30, 2012 

ATLANTA -- Though the state Legislature sometimes gets compared to a kindergarten, it’s probably more like a high school with its own cliques, hierarchies and new etiquette to learn.

A trio of midstate freshmen learned their way around this session, finding that it takes a whole lot more than merit to get a bill through the General Assembly.

State Rep. James Beverly, an intown Macon Democrat, had never held political office before coming to the state House after a special election last July.

“My gray hairs are coming by the handful,” he said.

Beverly said he did more in a day at the Capitol “than I probably used to at my small business in two weeks.”

Beverly, an optometrist, owns Midtown Vision Centre, where he’s hardly worked this year. He talked about his first session on a sunny afternoon recently in his small Capitol office in Atlanta, more than 12 hours after his day had started.

“It’s all moving parts,” he said. “I’m constantly thinking about the overarching scheme (of things) of Georgia and what happens in my district.”

The Legislature runs 40 nonconsecutive days beginning early every January. Most days, the legislators spend three to four hours in the House or Senate chambers and as much time again in committee meetings. All the time before, after and in between is filled with meetings -- with the party, with other legislators, advocates and folks from home. At least a few times a year, official business runs until midnight. It’s busy enough during the session that legislators from outside metro Atlanta usually rent a place to stay in the city.

Beverly admitted he thought it would be easier than it actually is to pass legislation, a matter of making 91 friends in the state House, a majority. But “For a Democrat now, it is not about grinding it out and fighting a good fight. You got to be smart, give people an opportunity to buy into what you’re saying.” Of 180 House members, 116 are Republicans.

He picked that up fast. Remarkably for a freshman Democrat, he passed a bill with the support of his fellow Bibb lawmakers. House Bill 1265 creates a new economic development authority to serve the poorest parts of Macon.

State Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican, took office February 2011 after a special election, his first political experience. His average day? “Long and intense. A good intense,” though, he said.

There’s constant interaction with other legislators and constituents. “You really have to be on your toes all day long,” he said.

He, too, said he did not realize how complicated it is to get consensus to pass bills, adding that sometimes it seems slow. But, he said, “it’s good. Bills get vetted, looked at, examined closely.”

And lawmaking is a team effort, he emphasized. “No one gets anything done alone. ... You really have to build relationships and trust with other members to get anything done.”

Probably hundreds of people besides legislators work to shape legislation each session. It goes from lawyers who have to turn legislators’ ideas into clear language, all the way up to the governor with his veto power. In between there are lobbyists, the political parties, activists, state agency bosses, and constituents.

Said Dickey, “You have to give and take to be a good pubic servant.” And have a sense of humor, for that matter, he added.

He said he was surprised by how much lobbying takes place, not just from the people hanging around the Capitol hallways. “I get lobbied at church,” he laughed. There are also calls and e-mails from constituents every day.

State Sen. Miriam Paris, D-Macon, knew about politicking already, having been president of Macon City Council. There, she was in the majority party. The Legislature that she joined in July is different.

She was one of a core of Senate Democrats who fought several Republican-sponsored bills, including a proposal to end availability of some abortions, cutting unemployment payments and requiring drug tests and “personal development activities” of people who receive certain welfare. The Democrats publicly fought what they called unfair, and perhaps unconstitutional, social legislation via speeches on the House floor and attempts to amend bills.

They lost hard, even holding a protest after failing to stop House Bill 954, which limits access to abortions.

“This is just outrageous,” Paris said. “We’re turning the state back minute by minute, hour by hour. This (bill) does not create jobs,” a reference to the task many legislators have said is their top priority.

“At least we stood our ground,” she said. “In the minority party, our job is to stand firm to our convictions.”

But overall, Paris also found the dome and debate energizing.

“It’s really been great. There’s lots of back and forth. It’s refreshing to have such professionalism here.”

The legislators “are really looking to address issues that shape their district and the state,” she said.

She, too, knows the assets she needs to move bills: “For me as a rookie, I’m building working relationships,” she said.

All three lawmakers say they will run for re-election this year.

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