May 13, 2002: To Governor Roy Barnes, State Capitol:

Dear Governor, I want to thank you for starting your re-election campaign so early. I figure that the more television commercials you run, the less airtime will be available for all the car dealers who scream and act like nincompoops. You are performing a real public service.

I am puzzled about a couple of things, though. You have an ad that shows you as a child selling fruit on the streets of Austell. I am not sure why we need to know that — not that selling fruit on the streets of Austell isn’t a noble endeavor. I just can’t figure out what that has to do with being governor. Maybe you are assuring us that your boyhood experience was good preparation for all the fruits and nuts you have to deal with today, like state Sen. Charles Walker of Augusta, who is slicker than any banana peel you ever encountered in Austell.

The bigger question, however, is why advertise at all? You are a lock for re-election. The political gods have smiled on you by offering up for sacrifice State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko (Frick), Cobb County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne (Frack) and the author of the much beloved natural gas deregulation legislation, former state Sen. Sonny Perdue. How do you keep from giggling when you assess your competition?

With rare exception, you nailed down everything you wanted in your first term, including changing the state flag. I am currently fasting so that I can collect on all the lunches I am going to win from people who bet me that changing the flag would get you defeated. What these folks haven’t figured out is that as many people are glad you made the change as there are people who are upset with you, and both groups combined are not as large as the crowd in the middle that doesn’t care one way or the other. Politically, changing the flag was a no-brainer.

Your second term should be even easier than the first. Since you can’t run for re-election, you can do pretty much whatever you want to do. Therefore, let me offer you a suggestion. (You knew I was going to get around to that, didn’t you?) Why don’t you spend the next four years showing us that state government operates in the people’s interest and not in the interest of professional politicians? I don’t ever recall citizens being as turned off by state government as they are today. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in at some private party to which we were not invited.

You could change that perception drastically with one simple piece of legislation. Strengthen our ethics laws, which are currently the weakest in the nation. I served on the State Ethics Commission for five years and I know firsthand how little power this group has. About all the commission is empowered to do is to see that public officials properly fill out forms about who has given them money for their political campaigns, and the commission doesn’t even have sufficient staff to do that. The state’s laissez-faire attitude toward the ethical conduct of public officials only serves to make people even more apathetic toward its government.

The Legislature has no desire to hold themselves and others at the public trough accountable for their wheeling and dealing. That leaves it up to you as a soon-to-be second-termer. You would find enormous support from the citizens of Georgia and from the news media for stronger ethics laws — assuming the legislation was meaningful and tough, and not full of glaring loopholes. No one would dare oppose it. This would be your legacy — the governor who returned government to its rightful owners, the people. You would be a hero and as beloved as Ray Charles.

If that isn’t enticement enough, think about this: After you leave office, you could go around the country making speeches about how you engineered the toughest ethics laws in the country. People would pay a lot of money to know how you did it. You could retire a wealthy man and you would never have to worry about going back to the streets of Austell and having to open a fruit stand in order to pay your bills.

Pardon me for saying so, but I think strengthening our ethics laws is a peach of an idea.

Your friend,