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Glenn Richardson emerges as high-profile force

Bill Shipp

A star was born in the last legislative session. In fewer than 40 days, House Speaker Glenn Richardson went from back-bench bubba to potential candidate for governor.

His adroit handling of Gov. Sonny Perdue's ethics-in-government bill in the final hour of the 2005 General Assembly earned the speaker praise even from critics.

An Atlanta newspaper, generally hostile to Richardson, cooed that the presiding officer "exceeded expectations in his first year in what is arguably the Legislature's toughest job. He bent on the ethics bill but generally demonstrated his independence and emerged as a legislative leader to be reckoned with."

When nationally known political consultant Ralph Reed informed Richardson's supporters of his intention to run for lieutenant governor in 2006, Reed was told, "That's OK, but you should know that Glenn plans to run for governor in 2010." Translation: Don't get in Glenn's way, Ralph. The speaker is on his way to the top.

Historically, a Richardson candidacy for, say, governor may make more sense than Reed's ploy. Reed has never been selected for elective office. Richardson has served in the House since 1997.

Eight of the past 10 governors used their memberships in the Legislature as stepping-stones to the executive suite.

Only one of the past 10 governors was an outsider who had never served in state government. In that single case, the Legislature, not regular voters, selected Atlanta segregationist Lester Maddox as Georgia's governor (1967-1971).

Except for Maddox, the governor's office has been off-limits to those who have not proven themselves at the ballot box. Reed's trial by election is planned for next year.

Admittedly, we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Richardson has presided over only one session. He has miles to go before thinking seriously of moving up. As the House's first Republican speaker in modern times, Richardson made scores of enemies.

He appointed a legislative goon squad - he called them "Hawks" - to squelch committee debate and amendments to bills. By comparison, Richardson's dictatorial style made even one of his predecessors, legendary tough-guy Speaker Tom Murphy, seem a model of democratic decorum.

Of course, the ascendancy of Richardson is dependent on Gov. Perdue's re-election next year. If Perdue fails, you can probably forget Richardson.

The speaker's post is not to be taken lightly or seen as simply a portal to something else. During his long tenure, Speaker Murphy was regarded as more influential than several governors. The late George Busbee decided in the 1970s to run for governor only after Murphy nosed him out of the speaker's race. Busbee had been House majority leader.

Richardson also serves as county attorney for fast-growing Paulding County and, in that capacity, has incurred the wrath of some citizens outside the Legislature in the business community. When Gov. Sonny Perdue tapped Richardson as floor leader and then speaker, one knowledgeable observer noted wryly: "If Glenn does in the House what he has done in Paulding County, then we had all better duck and pray."

Even so, the speaker has won five consecutive elections in his home district and was a key player in the GOP takeover of the House in 2004.

He also fits the mold of the seemingly popular New Georgia political leader: A secretive and unpolished presence with the unforgiving and uninformed demeanor of an angry redneck.

No matter what he achieves in the future, without a top-to-bottom makeover, Richardson is not likely to make the Bush family's A-list for strictly social outings.

The Hiram-based attorney was not alone in achieving power and prominence in the newly configured General Assembly.

As House majority leader, former Georgia Christian Coalition chief Jerry Keen of St. Simons became a serious player for the first time in his legislative career. So did Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs.

No House rules committee chairman in memory has exercised more control over legislative flow than Ehrhart.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens of Canton, Zell Miller's one-time press aide, figures to be the leading contender for the secretary of state's vacated office in the 2006 election.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson of Savannah also appears to have a good shot at higher office next year.

In retrospect, an important long-term impact of the 2005 legislative session may be the changing dynamics and new roster of players it imposed on Georgia's political landscape.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Contact him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web address is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.