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Gold Dome Turnover

The Georgia State Capitol is a place that shows few physical signs of change.

New paintings of past governors are hung every four or eight years, but otherwise the decor is fairly constant. The two-headed snake and the two-headed calf – yes, for those of you who weren’t here for fourth-grade Georgia History, there’s one of each – remain on display. The two legislative chambers look much the same as they have for decades.

But the people serving in those chambers? That’s a different story.

I wrote recently about the competitiveness of our state legislative districts following the most recent round of redistricting. What I didn’t address then was the steady stream of turnover among those elected from those districts, eroding the institutional memory within those timeless walls.

As the present legislative session ends, there are only 72 legislators who were serving when the 2012 session ended. That’s 72 out of 236, less than one-third. A handful of them lost, or ran for something else, and returned in the meantime, so not even all 72 have been around continuously.

Twelve of the 72 are not running for re-election (although one House member, Ed Setzler, is running for a seat in the Senate). But considering those who originally won special elections, and the possibility of at least a couple of incumbents losing this year, it’s safe to say less than a quarter of the General Assembly, when it returns in 2023, will have at least a dozen years’ experience.

Among those leaving is the Dean of the House, Rep. Calvin Smyre. The Columbus Democrat was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as ambassador to the Dominican Republic but, thanks to the U.S. Senate’s glacial confirmation process, didn’t have to leave before the Speaker gaveled out “Sine Die” a 48th time. Much has changed around him since he chaired the powerful Rules Committee, when Democrats last held the majority, but not his gentlemanly demeanor. He’ll be sorely missed by people on both sides of the aisle.

Also departing are a pair of Republican stalwarts. House Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn) helped steer the state budget through the latter stages of the Great Recession as well as the COVID-19 pandemic – and, just as important, helped prevent the state’s spending from swelling irresponsibly in between. Guessing his replacement is a Gold Dome parlor game, and a hard one to win given how well England served as chairman. There’s no shoo-in to fill his shoes.

Nor are there any obvious candidates to assume, in all aspects, the role played by Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis. The Chickamauga Republican has been a smiling, bordering on cheeky, fixture in the upper chamber for the entire 21st century to date. That includes five terms presiding over the Rules Committee, during which he may be credited for introducing “entrance music” to set the tone or simply liven up the otherwise serious proceedings.

There are others making their exit who merit mentions, or entire columns, but I want to make room here for one more who isn’t even one of the old-timers. Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) walked a fine line during his eight years in the House: navigating the twin challenges of maintaining his independence on one hand, and good relations with leadership on the other. That’s not easy to do.

Personally, I deeply appreciated the way Cantrell fought for more educational freedom for Georgia’s families, and did so in a way that – despite the carping of his critics – also honored the value of public education. His final attempt at creating a new, flexible option for Georgia’s students fell short this year through no fault of his own. They, and he, deserved better.

In a time when voters complain about “career politicians,” Cantrell is choosing to leave after four terms, just as he’d promised. He’s not alone, as the statistics about turnover demonstrate. You can find politicians who stay in office too long, but you won’t find many of them in the Georgia General Assembly.