Jun. 17, 2002: Mighty Murphy Just Can’t Get Enough

Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, who doesn’t have anything better to do with his time, has announced that he is running for reelection to the Georgia House of Representatives. Knock me over with a feather.

Murphy said he made the announcement to squelch rumors that he was waxing up his boogie board and headed for Hawaii or that he was running away to join the circus.

One of the reasons he has decided to go back to the legislature instead of getting a real job, Murphy declares, was because “everywhere I went in Georgia, they have asked me to run again. I have never had as much encouragement to run again in all the times I’ve run before.” The Speaker and I must travel in different circles, which should come as no surprise to regular visitors to this space. Everywhere I go in Georgia, the people I talk to think Murphy is an anachronism or an old-time political boss who runs the state like it is his personal fiefdom.

Political junkies make a big deal out of the fact that Murphy has been in the legislature since 1961 and has been speaker for 30 years, which makes him the longest-serving presiding officer of a state legislative body in the country. Who cares? The only thing that fact means is that he controls everything that goes on under the Gold Dome as suits his personal whims. Legislators have told me privately that if you cross the Speaker, you can forget ever getting a piece of legislation through the House, no matter how worthy the cause. Republicans could show up buck-naked and he wouldn’t recognize them. I don’t see where any of that accrues to the benefit of Georgia’s citizens. Murphy’s style of politics was better suited for the early 20th century, not the 21st.

But why should he retire? He has more power than Superman. He decides what will be law and what won’t. He has a group of sycophants made up of legislators, lobbyists and assorted political hangers-on who guffaw every time he grins and swoon every time he speaks. People pay homage to him like he was the emperor. If you had a job like that, would you want to retire?

Besides, the Speaker says there is a lot still to do before he tools off into the sunset. Despite his best efforts, including the reapportionment purge he spearheaded last year, a few Republicans are running around the Capitol acting like they still belong there. In Murphy’s mind, such know-nothings must be dealt with decisively before they start doing silly stuff like effectively representing their constituents. The Georgia High School Association may find itself facing another reclassification of its schools if Bremen loses another football game or debate to one of them prissy private schools in Atlanta. Maybe a relative or two would like to be a superior court judge. Being emperor isn’t as easy as it looks.

Murphy almost didn’t make it back to the last session. A Republican challenger named Bill Heath nearly cleaned his clock in their west Georgia district two years ago losing by only 500 votes. At that time, I said the Speaker was “toast.” He fired off a letter telling me that he never read my columns but resented my implications. That letter is one of my prized possessions, and I hope one day to ask the Great Man how he knew what I said if he never reads my column.

Even though Heath says he is running again, I have no doubt Murphy will win reelection this time around because he won’t be asleep at the switch like he was in 2000. But this may really be his Last Hurrah. West Georgia is experiencing a huge influx of growth as people flee Metro Atlanta or move in from out of state. Many of the newcomers don’t know Tom Murphy from Alley Oop. A sizeable number weren’t even on this earth when he first took office. A lot of them are Republican leaning. The Speaker may make it back this time but sooner rather than later, he is going to be voted out of office if he doesn’t step down gracefully and go home.

I giggle every time I think about it: Tom Murphy’s power and dominion currently reside in the hands of a bunch of yuppie Republicans. Isn’t democracy wonderful?