Eager freshmen seen, heard in state Senate

Staff, AP Wire
Rome News-Tribune

This year's crop of freshman legislators didn't come to the Capitol to sit on the sidelines.

By all accounts, they seem determined to make the most of their terms in the Georgia General Assembly — aggressively pushing and debating legislation and not shy about taking on controversial issues from abortion to guns and alcohol sales.

And with so many rookies, their vote is as valuable as any veteran's, giving them unusual influence for newcomers to the chamber.

"The size of the class is factor No. 1," said state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville.

"Frankly, they needed the bodies to get the work done and they needed the votes to get the bills through."

But Coomer, an attorney, said the leaders also went out of their way to ensure the old hands got to know the freshmen, their strengths and their interests.

He ended up as lead sponsor of House Bill 242, the "American Laws for Georgia Courts" bill, because of his interest in Constitutional law.

Encouragement of bipartisan initiatives also led him to seek out a freshman Democrat, state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta, to share sponsorship of his HB 390. The bill gives prosecutors the right of appeal in criminal cases.

"We have very smart leaders in the House," Coomer said. "They were happy to share the workload and credit. It shows a great deal of confidence."

Freshmen legislators make up nearly a third of the Senate's Republican caucus — and the leaders in that chamber also have readily embraced the newcomers.

Nearly two dozen freshmen-sponsored bills have cleared the Senate this session. President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams said senior senators have both helped and hazed the new class.

"It used to be where freshmen were kind of expected not to be engaged, but to listen," Williams said. "But the Senate turns over fairly rapidly. Because of that, we should engage them early."

Last year's wide-open election season, led by an opening for governor and all of Georgia's constitutional offices, cleared the way for dozens of new state legislators. The House welcomed 37 new lawmakers, but with 180 members, freshmen representatives must fight harder to be heard.

There are, however, exceptions. State Rep. Rick Jasperse, a Republican from Jasper, won rave reviews from tea party activists for pushing through health care compact legislation, a rebuke to the federal health care law.

Democratic Rep. Elena Parent of Chamblee was a rare bright spot for her party in last year's elections, ousting a sitting Republican lawmaker in a GOP year.

In the Senate, 13 of the 56 members are first-timers, including 12 of the 36 GOP senators.

Not all are strangers to governing. Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro, returned to the Senate after losing her seat in 2008. Some, like Sens. Fran Millar of Atlanta and Barry Loudermilk of Cassville, are former House members.

Others, like Sens. Frank Ginn of Danielsville and Rick Jeffares of Locust Grove, have served in county government. Still others, like Sen. Steve Gooch of Dahlonega, served on state boards.

Freshmen have sponsored bills on several hot-button topics. Loudermilk, who keeps a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Bible on his desk, took on abortion and guns this session, with mixed success.

"To me, it's whether an issue is right or wrong, not whether it's easy or hard," he said. "I was told you're given two years to be here and represent your district. If you don't do that, the voters will pick somebody else."

Gooch quipped that skittish veterans may have taken advantage of their inexperience.

"They may have dumped some things on us, like we didn't know any better," he said. "But the best way to learn is to do it."

Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1996, suggested that a vacuum of leadership in the chamber and the influence of state tea party groups may have given his freshman colleagues extra enthusiasm.

"Some of them came with specific ideological agendas," Fort said. "And from an outsider's point of view, when you don't have one central leader like the lieutenant governor, the dispersal of power gives the freshmen even more impact," he added, alluding to the creation this session of an eight-member leadership committee.

Tea Party Patriots State Coordinator Julianne Thompson said the group is happy with this year's freshmen.

"We do feel that they are the fiscal hawks and the constitutional warriors that they campaigned to be," Thompson said. "Only time will tell, and we will keep watching. But so far, so good."

Even Sen. Jason Carter of Decatur, the Senate's lone freshman Democrat, has jumped into the fray, shouldering the minority party's fight over the HOPE scholarship — easily one of the session's most contentious issues. Carter said he tried to keep a low profile, but it was hard not to get involved.

"Something came up that I cared about, and the leadership asked me to take a role," Carter said. "It's not a shy bunch."

Williams said he has also noticed freshmen being vocal in caucus meetings and before important votes. Some freshmen are not yet on board with outstanding issues like the proposed changes to the state tax code.

"It takes 29 votes to pass every bill," Williams noted. "They're half the votes you need. They understand that their vote is important."

Sen. Jeff Mullis, an 11-year veteran of the chamber, had other thoughts.

"They need a little more humility training," he grunted.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, a freshman and former city councilman from Dalton, said he is obligated to listen and speak his mind.

"Folks in my district expect me to represent them, too," Bethel said. "I have found myself in the role of persuading others, and I have found myself in the role of being persuaded. I think that's what we're here to do."

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