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Former Georgia House speaker dies

Tom Murphy was 83

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POSTED: January 2, 2008 5:02 a.m.

 

ATLANTA -- Former Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, who loomed larger than life over state politics for more than 20 years, died Monday night, state officials said. He was 83.

"An era in Georgia politics is over," said former Rep. Terry Coleman, who briefly succeeded Murphy, a fellow Democrat, as House speaker. Coleman said Murphy had died just after 10 p.m.

He was the longest-serving state House speaker in the nation when voters in his west Georgia district turned him out of office in 2002. That election would turn out to be the beginning of the Republican revolution in the state and two years later Murphy's chamber was in GOP hands.

He suffered a stroke in 2004, soon after departing the state Capitol. Friends said his health had been in gradual decline ever since.

Gov. Sonny Perdue praised Murphy's work on behalf of children, veterans and the disabled.

"Speaker Murphy's spirit will forever be a part of the General Assembly and his love for our state should serve as an example to us all," the GOP governor said.

Perdue ordered flags on state buildings and grounds lowered to half-staff until sunset on the day of Murphy's funeral.

Former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes said that "to a large extent the prosperity we share today is a result of the handiwork of Tom Murphy.

"One cannot look anywhere without seeing the results of his vision — whether it is the interstate highway system, World Congress Center, or even MARTA," Barnes said.

Thomas Bailey Murphy, a lawyer from Bremen, was elected to the House in 1960 and to the speaker's post in 1973.

For more than two decades, he was undisputed ruler of Georgia's House of Representatives, controlling committee appointments, presiding over House debates and exacting a toll from those who crossed him. A die-hard Democrat he never shied away from a fight.

His power reached its peak in the 1980s when he used it to play kingmaker. Murphy helped an obscure legislative protege, Joe Frank Harris, win the governor's office in 1982 and 1986, and it turned the tide for Wyche Fowler in the 1986 U.S. Senate race.

But his influence began to slip in 1990 when Zell Miller, the lieutenant governor for 16 years, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over a Murphy-backed candidate.

As the decade progressed, Murphy found it increasingly difficult to control a House of Representatives that was growing more diverse and less cohesive with every election. Rural, white males no longer dominated as they had for decades.

Aggressive freshman Republicans, especially, chipped away at Murphy's patience with endless speeches and challenges of procedural rules.

On the last day of the 1994 session, Murphy was so irritated in the final hours that he almost came to blows with Rep. Mitchell Kaye, R-Marietta, because the freshman had helped himself to a turkey sandwich from the speaker's office.

Three days later, he suffered a heart attack.

Plainspoken and often gruff, Murphy said he wasn't as bad as some made him out to be.

"It's always amused me that people around the state think I'm the meanest man alive," he once told The Atlanta Constitution. "You'd be surprised how many times I don't get my way."

One of those times came during the 1994 session when he waged a failed political battle to make it tougher to place names on a statewide child abuser registry. Murphy vowed to change the law when a state attorney refused to remove his client's name from the registry during a court case.

Murphy was often criticized by some as a throwback to the rural-dominated machine politics of the past. But a former legislator-turned-lobbyist took issue with that assessment.

"Tom Murphy is probably one of the most complex figures you'll ever meet," Cathey Steinberg said in a 1990 interview with The Atlanta Constitution. "You can say he's a Populist, but who gave Atlanta MARTA and the World Congress Center? That's why he's a brilliant politician. Tom Murphy has an ability to sit on the front porch in Bremen and, at the same time, to make sure the World Congress Center passes."

One of the great political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s in Georgia pitted Murphy against Miller, who became lieutenant governor just a year after Murphy took the gavel in the House. Their pitched battles over taxes, transportation department funding and a state lottery set a contentious tone for many legislative sessions.

Once, Miller accused Murphy of burying his bills "in the Murphy mausoleum in a cemetery on the third floor (of the statehouse)." Murphy fired back, "I wish I did have a mausoleum. If I did, I guarantee you there'd be another person interred in it."

The two made amends after Miller became governor, and their relationship thereafter was smooth.

While he ruled the rowdy House chamber with an iron fist, he also had a well-known soft spot for the needy and the disabled that could move him to tears on the House floor.

Murphy grew up during the Depression, the son of a railroad man who also was a Primitive Baptist minister. His hostility to Republicans was born during that hard period of American life as he watched bankrupt farmers leave their land.

"I remember standing on the depot platform with my daddy at the railroad and seeing the freight train go by with a whole family in that boxcar," Murphy told a reporter in 1990.

He went on to call himself a "yellow dog Democrat," meaning he'd vote for any Democrat over a Republican — even a yellow dog. His hero in politics was Harry S. Truman.

Murphy idolized an older brother, James R. Murphy, who died nearly 30 years ago. Murphy's wife, Agnes, died at age 54 in November 1982. The couple had four children.

Away from the Capitol, Murphy worked a one-acre garden at his home in Bremen in west Georgia. He was an avid reader. His favorite books were westerns by such authors as Louis L'Amour and Zane Gray. A photo of John Wayne hung on his office wall.

Murphy was a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II. He earned a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1949. He served on the Bremen school board before winning election to the House in 1960.

In 1967, then-Gov. Lester Maddox chose Murphy to serve as administration floor leader, presenting the Maddox legislative package to the House. Four years later, Murphy was elected by fellow House members as speaker pro tem.

When Speaker George L. Smith II was felled by a stroke in November 1973, Murphy quickly secured commitments from fellow House members to elect him to succeed.

In the end, Murphy's district transformed around him, becoming increasingly suburban and Republican. He was defeated by Republican Bill Heath in 2002. Heath is now in the state Senate.

 

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