Saturday, April 18, 2009

About a Powerful Old Time Democrat (Oops, I Used a Bad Word)

Review of “Mr. Speaker” by Richard Hyatt

This is an intriguing book about Tom Murphy, a political giant in Georgia legislative politics. This was a powerful legislator who was once allied with a Governor known for using an axe handle to keep Blacks from patronizing his restaurant. He was a leading gadfly often opposing Governor Jimmy Carter. The book captures a person and time in politics and allows the reader to examine what happened through the eyes of a driving force during that period.

Murphy served in World War II and like many veterans of that war, would only say about his shrapnel injury “I don’t want to talk about it and I won’t. When you see innocent young boys blown right out of the water, it ain’t pretty.” While he was part of the silent war generation, he was vocal when it came to politics.

Murphy was the last of three relatives to serve in the Georgia legislature. His brother James first won the seat in 1944. He served during the tumultuous period when confusion over adopting a new Constitution just before the death of the Governor-elect led to three people claiming to be Governor. The legislature recognized the son of the deceased Governor-elect as Governor until the U.S. Supreme Court decided the newly elected Lt. Governor was Governor. They also invalidated any actions the Governor and legislature had taken. James Murphy ruined his political career when he voted in favor of keeping the Democratic Party open only to white voters while publicly doubting that position. The bill passed but the Supreme Court nullified it. He did not seek reelection. Two years later, his cousin Harold Murphy was elected to the seat. In 1960, Tom won the seat when Harold decided to step down.

Back then, Governors appointed legislative committee chairs. The Governor had a direct phone line to the Speaker’s podium and would tell the Speaker what he wanted done. Tom Murphy became a rare legislator who received a chairmanship in only his second term. Governor Carl Sanders, though, expected Murphy to do the Governor’s bidding. This was the same legislative session when Speaker George L. Smith felt reassured he would be re-appointed as the Governor had proclaimed that George Smith would be his Speaker. Yet, Carl Sanders then made the surprising announcement that an obscure legislator, George T. Smith, was the new Speaker. Speaker George T. Smith later removed Murphy from his chair position due to his political independence.

Governor Sanders refused to let the legislature adjourn until it considered a bill Sanders wanted. Murphy used a Parliamentarian procedure to ask for clarification of the bill, paragraph by paragraph. After only two pages of the 78 page bill had been clarified to Murphy’s satisfaction, the Governor gave up seeking the bill’s passage.

The 1966 election for Governor failed to produce a winner, as the Constitution then required a candidate to receive a majority of votes. The legislature then was required to decide which of the two candidates receiving the most votes would become Governor. The legislature used this opportunity to obtain a good degree of independence from being controlled by the Governor and made a deal with the second place finisher, Lester Maddox. Governor Maddox, an outspoken foe of desegregation, asked Murphy to be his floor leader. Murphy and Maddox became strong allies.

Murphy rose to being Speaker, and a sharp critic of the winner of the 1970 election, Jimmy Carter. Upon taking the Speakership, Murphy declared “I am tied to no one except to the individual members of the caucus.” These comments would return to haunt Murphy. This was fine while Murphy’s Democratic Caucus controlled the legislature. Indeed, Murphy felt part of his duty was to bully Republican legislators as best as he could. Yet, as Republicans increasingly won more Georgia House seats, the Republicans saw Murphy as a partisan and an opponent. Republicans held 29 seats in 1974 and had risen to strong minority of 78 seats in 1999. Georgia Republicans sought to impede Murphy’s legislative efforts.

Murphy had a philosophy on how to show political strength. As he explained, “as Speaker or as a leader, you don’t use it unless it is absolutely necessary. And when you use it, you don’t disclose it. Your just make things happen.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor described Murphy’s power as Speaker by explaining that “to do as well as the Speaker, you either need the respect or the fear of the body. He has had both. His survival has been on the fact that his troops know there are ramifications if they don’t follow his lead. The trick is to accomplish things without those powers.”

Murphy often proved his loyalty to his caucus. He willingly took the blame for mistakes fellow Democratic legislators made. He felt he could better withstand the criticism from a press that was already mostly hostile towards him.

Governor Carter was a notorious micro-manager who sent Speaker Murphy handwritten letters nearly every day. Murphy, though, tore them up and threw them out. Murphy regretted not keeping them once Carter became President.

In 1997, when Bill Bulger resigned as Massachusetts State Senate President, Murphy replaced him at the nation’s most senior state legislative presiding officer. Murphy, though, found his leadership challenged more. While historically a conservative, Murphy strongly distrusted some of the emerging conservative leaders. As he put it, “we have way too much religion but not enough Christianity. That’s the reason I don’t have too much respect for the Christian Coalition…Problem is, these folks who run it and get all that money take half truths, absolute fabrications, and dispense them under the guise of Christianity.”

Murphy oversaw a changing political climate. The formerly all male, all white legislature became increasingly diversified. Speaker Murphy and Senate President Zell Miller feuded constantly. At the same time, some of the past excitement voters felt towards the legislature began fading. Where there once had been over a dozen reporters covering the legislature, and these reporters were among the highest paid reporters in the state, the Atlanta newspapers assigned just four reporters to report on the legislature during 1998.

Murphy’s feud with Zell Miller subsided a bit when Zell Miller became Governor. They learned to work professionally together. Murphy even yielded his years of opposition to establishing a state lottery and agreed with Governor Miller to create the lottery.

Murphy may have been, as one reporter described him, “the epitome of old-line reactionary county unit politics”, referring back to a time when Georgia election law awarded all the votes in a county to the candidate who carried that county. Yet, Murphy also presided over much political evolution as Georgia politics modernized. This is an excellent biography of one of the longest serving state legislative leaders in American history.


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