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Can there ever be another Tom Murphy

POSTED: January 7, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Tom Murphy endured 28 years as Georgia House speaker because he kept his word and never caused his fellow House members to feel shamed.
Murphy, one of the longest-tenured speakers in the country, died last week  —  slightly more than five years after voters in his new district defeated him for his House seat. The newly empowered GOP electorate wanted a Republican, just any Republican, more than a brand-name Democrat, even if said Democrat wielded more power than any other Georgia politician.
When Republicans dumped Murphy as a local representative, and the new GOP-majority House installed Glenn Richardson as speaker, they got what they deserved.
Murphy told his biographer Richard Hyatt in 1999:
“I just want to be remembered as a man who didn’t steal and told the truth.”    
Thomas Bailey Murphy was not the first choice of the state’s business community to lead Georgia’s newly independent House back in 1973. (Until the late 1960s, the governor’s office controlled the House.) When then-Speaker George L. Smith II, a strong-willed, business-friendly lawmaker, died unexpectedly of a stroke, the corporate community looked to Majority Leader George Busbee of Albany to step up to speaker. Busbee demurred and accepted the runner-up prize  —  governor.
Murphy took the House gavel. Stunned big-business lobbyists immediately lined up outside his door, each offering what they had awarded some of his predecessors  —  retainers to represent their interests back home and, by implication, in the Legislature. Murphy gruffly refused their payments, leaving the business guys bewildered and frightened.
Murphy had gone from a renegade back-bencher in the Legislature to Gov. Lester Maddox’s irascible floor leader. The new speaker’s crude and rude demeanor led some CEOs to believe they had inherited a wild man  -— an anti-business and racist populist. They were dead wrong.  
As it turned out, Murphy was business’ best friend. He saw commercial expansion as a way to give all Georgians a better quality of life. He saw dodging the racial bullet as a political necessity to give Georgia an advantage over other old Confederate states. He put improved education at the top of his agenda.
At heart, Murphy turned out to be the last of the genuine New Dealers, an artful old-time Democrat who would go to nearly any ethical lengths to have his way, including bursting into tears.
Cynics in the House press box said Murphy was the greatest Irish actor ever to grace the Gold Dome.
Murphy may have been among the state’s wisest politicians. Pat Crecine, a former president of Georgia Tech, described Murphy as the smartest person he had ever met. When Murphy’s pal and sometimes protégé, Gov. Roy Barnes, informed the speaker he intended to remove the Rebel cross from the state flag, Murphy shook his head in sadness. “Boy, you know this is going to beat you, don’t you?” Murphy told Barnes.
“I told him, ‘I don’t think so,’” Barnes said. “But I was young and naive.”
When the flag fight ended in the Legislature, Murphy put his arm around Barnes’ shoulder and muttered, “You’re a mighty brave fellow.” He might have added “foolish” too. The speaker never brought up the flag issue again.
As the legislative year wore on, Murphy went to bat for Barnes’ education improvement package, which sailed to passage. However, many teachers opposed Barnes’ teacher-evaluation plan and joined ranks to beat Barnes, Murphy and other leading Democrats in the 2002 election. Because of Murphy, Georgia was among the last Old South states to leave Democratic ranks.
Though Murphy was sometimes criticized for high-handed, vengeful politics, he was in fact a softy. When the late Cobb County Rep. Al Burris tried to defeat him for speaker, Murphy immediately relegated Democrat Burris to the so-called do-nothing window-washing committee  — but later forgave Burris and took him back into the leadership circle.
The son of a part-time foot-washing Primitive Baptist minister, Murphy told a close friend. “I know right from wrong. I had it beat into me by my daddy while I was washing feet.”
Once when my former boss, then-Atlanta Constitution editor Hal Gulliver, and I dropped by to see the speaker after an editorial dust-up with the House, Murphy rolled his unlit cigar around in his mouth, narrowed his eyes and smiled:
“I don’t care what you write about me. I don’t read it anyway. But if you make my boy Mike mad enough, he will whip your tails, and I can’t stop him.” Murphy’s son Michael L. Murphy is now chief superior court judge of the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit.
I thought I would never write this, but here goes: Georgia misses Tom Murphy. We need to find another leader cut from the same cloth, and turn the gavel of power over to him or her as soon as possible. We need a Murphy, rough edges and all, to regain traction on the road to a better state.

Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA  30156, or e-mail shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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