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The death of a wise man

In the drive to spotlight miscreants, charlatans and incompetents in government, we sometimes overlook the good guys.

State Senate Secretary Frank Eldridge was a good guy. He was smart, civil and fair, and he avoided the limelight. He died of a heart attack last week at his home in Waycross. Eldridge, 73, was among my best friends, most knowledgeable sources and fiercest critics.

A Democrat who served with and under Republicans for 14 years as Senate secretary, Frank knew just about everything about modern Georgia politics. He also was an electronics whiz, a veteran airplane pilot and a multimillionaire businessman who could have walked away from politics years ago.

He loved the inside intrigues and arcane parliamentary rules too much to quit. Before he became secretary, he served as a state senator for 18 years and later as executive secretary of the Public Service Commission.

Over the protests of some of his colleagues, he, with the help of state Sen. Frank Sutton, installed the first computer in the Georgia General Assembly more than 35 years ago. The machine, about the size of a pickup truck, had to be carried into the Capitol by several strong men. Former state Sen. Bobby Rowan said everybody marveled at Frank's computer (an obsolete device that Georgia Power Co. had discarded), but no one was quite sure why he got it or how he would use it. He was the first Georgia lawmaker to employ a computer to analyze voter lists.

For much of his career, Frank tried to see to it that the Georgia Senate remained on the cutting edge of electronic technology. He also was a pioneer advocate of transparency in legislative procedures.

While Frank loved a good battle and thrived in an adversarial atmosphere, he recoiled at the latter-day extreme partisanship in which words such as "evil" and "hateful" were bandied about to describe opponents and opposing views.

In Frank's ideal political world, battles started among honorable men and women and ended without lasting animosities.

Coalitions changed, and life went on. Politics was like football, except that winning or losing meant something.

Frank despised corrupt elected officials because they denigrated and perverted the system. A reporter on the trail of a legislative rat could depend on Frank for help. Two former lawmakers have been sentenced recently to prison for corruption partly because Frank detested and detected their malfeasances.

People like me will especially miss Frank's unerring sense of shifts in the state's political winds and his insights into the characters of the main players who parade across our public stage.

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HERE COME THE JUDGES: Gov. Sonny Perdue may have the last laugh on the Georgia Supreme Court.

If he wins re-election in November, he is expected to add two new seats to the seven-justice panel.

The new justices may not be distinguished legal scholars, but, like his last appointment, they are all but certain to take their marching orders from the governor's office.

The state's highest court has repeatedly rebuffed Perdue's efforts to extend his power. It rejected a lawsuit in which the governor attempted to usurp the authority of Georgia's elected attorney general, and it has resisted repeatedly his attempt to take control of the judiciary branch's independent budgetary process.

However, legal experts say the judicial article in the state Constitution allows Perdue to increase the membership of the high court by two seats. Though such expansion would cost millions, the enlarged court would give a Georgia governor unprecedented influence over the appellate bench.

PS: The reported Perdue plan is reminiscent of President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era strategy to pack the U.S. Supreme Court, a proposal that failed and created a wave of anger and resentment against FDR's power grab.

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STILL MILES TO GO: As Coretta Scott King was laid to rest this week, the national and local media dwelled on how far Georgia has come since the 1968 death of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. When King's funeral was held in Atlanta, Gov. Lester Maddox refused to close the Capitol or to lower flags to half-staff. Instead, he ordered out the State Patrol to guard the Gold Dome against the perceived threat of violence.

Now, Mrs. King has become the first woman and the first black person to lie in state in the Capitol. Gov. Perdue ushered the casket and the King family into the rotunda. The media is right about progress in equal rights and justice, but little-noted ironies still abounded at the Capitol ceremony.

Mrs. King's remains were received in the statehouse:

•four years after a governor's election turned largely on a promise to consider restoring the Confederate battle emblem to the state flag.

•three years after the state Legislature gutted a predatory lending law aimed at protecting poor people.

•three weeks after the governor signed a new voter ID law that is certain to suppress voter turnout among minorities.

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