Divided Macon delegation doesn't get it done

ATLANTA — Maybe it’s not harder to get things done in Macon.

But it sure seems like it.

Macon and Bibb County didn’t get a penny hotel-motel tax passed this legislative session. That’s no monumental failure.

And yet it’s not so much that it didn’t pass. It’s the way it didn’t pass — all the digging in, poor communication and general feeling of legislators not working together.

We remain a community divided, and that’s what you see in the legislative delegation: representatives of the rest of us, moved to the marble floors of the Georgia state Capitol.

But in most ways, our delegation is no different than any other group of legislators from the same general area.

“I sit next to a guy from DeKalb,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. “And he complains endlessly about the bickering that goes on (there).”

But DeKalb County isn’t our problem.

“Macon does not have the best of reputations when it comes to the political establishment of our state,” said state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon. “I think we are perceived as being fragmented and, at certain times, petty.”

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus and state Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, two of Georgia’s longest-serving legislators, said Macon remains well-thought-of at the Capitol.

“I think you’re going to find that (legislators disagreeing is) more of the norm than the exception with large cities, or what I’d call big towns,” Hooks said.

“Macon has always enjoyed a good reputation up here,” Smyre said. “But up here ... any division creates an opportunity for another city.”

State Rep. David Lucas is one of the longest-serving members of the House. With 35 years under his belt, he wears a cowboy hat around the Capitol and likes to chew cigars.

State Sen. Robert Brown is the Senate minority leader, named by fellow Democrats. He recently brought a picture of Communist Mao Zedong and a noose to the Senate floor to make a point.

State Rep. Allen Peake seems to be an up-and-comer with the House Republican leadership. State Rep. Jim Cole, who represents a part of the city so small that it has no people living in it, is Gov. Sonny Perdue’s top floor leader in the House.

All that, and a Republican from Crawford County, a Democrat from Dry Branch, state Rep. Nikki Randall in Macon and Staton make up the legislative delegation of Macon and Bibb County.

There are four Republicans and four Democrats. Brown and Lucas represent the old guard, black Democrats from the city who seldom have opposition for their seats. Peake and Staton are the new guard, white Republicans from the north side of Bibb County.

They are cordial with each other, despite divides that pre-date them.

“We may not want to admit it, but there is a county/city issue that is always present,” said Staton, who moved to Macon in 1991. “There is a racial issue that’s always present, and there’s a philosophical divide.”

Lucas said much the same.

“Some of it is race, but a majority of it is about philosophical differences,” he said.

It costs the state Department of Transportation more to build projects here, because we fight them, Lucas said. We fought over the hotel outside the city’s convention center.

“I don’t know why we’re different,” said Tommy Olmstead, who has been a Macon mayor, Bibb County Commission chairman and state senator. “But we are different.”

Macon, Lucas said, has “always fought itself on improving anything.”

At the beginning of this session, with a new penny tax to support the halls the only major local issue on the table, the delegation met. But not in the same place.

Democrats met in a room near Brown’s office at the Capitol. The Republicans met in a nearby legislative office building.

The Macon City Council and Bibb County Commission had both voted to add a penny to the local hotel-motel sales tax, but it would be up the local delegation to pass a law to make it happen.

The penny tax ultimately fell apart.

It was a tax Lucas never wanted. Randall followed his lead and complained that no one from the city or county consulted her about it. She noted aloud that she must not be very important.

Brown stayed quiet on the issue but clearly wasn’t on board. He ended up blocking the tax in the Senate.

It came down to his single vote. And a penny tax, which seemed a done deal before the session, actually never had the support it needed from the beginning.

Two years ago, Brown also blocked a proposal to shrink the size of the Macon City Council. He and Staton are a delegation of two in the Senate, essentially requiring unanimity to pass local changes that require state action.

Brown didn’t vote to shrink the council — something the council itself asked for — and killed the plan. Of course, the way Brown sees it, Republicans killed his counterproposal to shrink the council in another way, one that may have meant one less Republican on the smaller council.

Some see Brown as the problem. The road block. The “boogie man,” to use Macon City Councilman Erick Erickson’s words.

But it was Erickson who injected race — at least by name — into the sales tax issue this year. He wrote that someone said that Lucas said only white people go to the sports and music halls of fame. Lucas denies saying anything like that. He said he holds a scholarship banquet in honor of his late son every year at the sports hall.

“People don’t want to admit it, but race has a lot to do with (our problems in Macon),” Lucas said.

Race is less divisive than politics, legislators said.

“But the race of the politician defines the perception of the politician,” Brown said.

Personalities also come into play, whatever legislators say about their cordial relationships.

In 2006, Republicans took a majority in the local delegation, breaking years of Democratic rule. The new guard met at Peake’s Cheddar’s restaurant in north Bibb County.

There is some question as to how everyone was invited, and whether it was ever clear that a new delegation chairman would be named at the meeting. Brown said he was told this was just a meeting to get to know the newly elected legislators.

The Democrats didn’t go. The Republicans named Staton chairman. Lucas was stripped of the title, which had been handed off for decades by the delegation based on seniority. It has been a sore spot ever since.

“Could it have been handled differently? Sure,” Peake said. “Maybe we should have waited to take action until they were there.”

Brown said the political divides for Macon “are no different ... than other parts of the state where you have a diverse delegation.”

That we have. Four Democrats. Four Republicans. Some from the city of Macon, some from unincorporated Bibb County. Three who don’t live in the county at all but are dragged into local fights because a portion of their district is here.

One way to change that is to change the districts. That will happen, one way or another, sometime after the 2010 census when the lines are redrawn statewide.

“This is our process in this country,” said Staton. “We debate. We dialogue.”

He said he’s frustrated that so much “ultimately ends up being about race.”

“I don’t know how we get beyond that.”