Earlier this year, Central Georgia Technical College held a ceremony to name a pair of buildings for longtime state Reps. Larry Walker Jr. and Larry O’Neal. A school statement called the men “giants” of Houston County.
It may be a while before any more public buildings in the county get named for Gold Dome lawmakers, though. Two early retirements this year have drawn a line under decades of remarkably high-ranked, long-tenured Houston County leadership that has known well how to shape policy and spending in Atlanta.
But, the new lawmakers say, there are good reasons why a string of folks from Houston County have ended up at big desks with big titles in Atlanta, and none of those reasons has changed.
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF ‘GIANTS’
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A legislative leader is something like a quarterback -- someone who calls the plays and organizes the team to carry them out.
From at least the early 1980s, there have been Houston County lawmakers calling plays in Atlanta. In 1983, Walker was named one of Gov. Joe Frank Harris’ official House liaisons. Three years later, Walker started the first of 16 years as house majority leader, one of the top jobs in writing and passing the majority party’s priorities. That was then a Democratic Party job. Meanwhile, Sonny Watson from Warner Robins was in the middle of 22 years in the state House, where he spent years chairing the Industry Committee. In 2003, Perry native Sonny Perdue graduated from state Senate leadership and started his eight years as the first modern Republican in the governor’s mansion. By the time Perdue departed the governor’s office in early 2011, O’Neal had been chosen majority leader in a House that had also turned Republican.
Titles like “committee chair” or “leader” come not just with a nicer office at the Capitol that’s a signal of status, but also with more power to decide which bills will get a hearing and what issues will be priorities for the whole state.
Constituents back home benefit from state representatives and senators who know their way through the maze of shaping public policy and spending public money.
“Having people in those kinds of positions means that if there is something that Houston County needs, there is someone there who can articulate those needs and whose voice will be heard,” said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
That includes things like some of the funds for buildings at CGTC or the new Perry library.
Then there are one-of-a-kind projects that theoretically could be built anywhere because they serve the whole state, such as the state fairgrounds or the Go Fish Georgia Education Center. Both are in Houston County.
“The fact that it ends up in Houston County, maybe that will be attributable to who was there” in Atlanta, Bullock said. “Lobbying is so much more effective if there’s somebody on the inside.”
But is that influence on the wane?
This year, two Houston County insiders announced midterm retirements. O’Neal announced his departure in April for a judgeship. And last week, state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, said he will leave office due to health reasons effective Nov. 1. He chairs the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee and sits on both the Rules and budget-writing Appropriations committees. Between the two lawmakers, they have more than a quarter-century of Gold Dome experience.
Come January, Houston County will field a relatively green team of lawmakers. State Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, will be a sophomore in the House, after having ousted fellow Warner Robins Republican Willie Talton, who first joined the House in 2005. O’Neal’s successor, state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, was elected in August. And Tolleson’s successor has yet to be elected.
NO SUNSET FOR HOUSTON COUNTY
But Houston County leaders say this turnover is part of the nature of politics.
Indeed, there’s something of an orderly handover from one generation of folks to the next. Talk to any of the veterans or any of the new people, and it sounds like they are all in touch with each other all the time, making introductions and explaining things.
“They put Houston County before themselves, and they know they’re not going to be there forever,” said Clark of the men he says are his mentors.
The turnover to newer officials is something of “a rebuilding,” said Blackmon. But he also said Houston County already has a broad, deep bench of people and groups that give it strength, including mayors, judges and the sheriff, along with officials from Robins Air Force Base, public schools and Central Georgia Technical College.
And there are other people in Atlanta on Team Houston, even if they’re not exactly locals. Slices of the county join House and Senate districts in other counties, and some of those lawmakers are moving up in leadership.
And, of course, Robins is run from Washington, not Atlanta, but decision-makers in Atlanta pay close attention to it as a huge employer.
Case in point: the new Georgia Military Academic Training Center. Cash for that came through the state budget. So did a portion of the money that’s being used to buy and demolish homes around the base, where the federal government wants to see fewer people in the path of noise and plane crash risk.
Politicians from across Middle Georgia routinely put Robins’ needs on their priority lists. Generally, the closer they are to the base, the higher it is.
Clark said he and other legislators already are scheduling pre-session meetings to talk about what they want to get done come January, not just in Houston County but for the region.
Walker said there is a learning curve for new lawmakers, but he’s not worried.
“We got some bright people up there,” he said.
And even though some of Houston County’s star quarterbacks have stepped off the field, they’re still on the sidelines.
“I think that’s one reason why you’ve probably seen some good leaders come out of Houston County, is that they’re always trying to help the next people,” Clark said.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.