The second Monday in January for the last 21 years, Don Balfour has made his way downtown for the opening of the Georgia General Assembly.
A month ago, he didn’t know if he would be back for the 22nd year.
But even though a jury acquitted him in December on criminal charges involving a per diem scandal, he doesn’t see this trip to Atlanta as a day of victory or vindication. It is just the next step in fulfilling his obligation to the voters who have elected him to the state Senate.
“It was good to be there, getting ready for the session,” Balfour said of a trip last week to his Capitol office, the first time he has ventured there in months.
Immediately after the jury’s acquittal, Balfour talked about the political enemies that paved the path from some accounting errors on reimbursement forms to facing felonies and jail time.
After the jury’s forewoman lambasted the Attorney General’s office for bringing forward the case, Balfour stood outside the courthouse and talked about how much the ordeal soured his wife from politics.
But weeks later — after spending time with son Trey before his departure for a deployment to Afghanistan and a family trip to Disney World — Balfour is heading back to office holding his head high.
“If I feel bitter, they win, so I’m putting that aside,” the Snellville Republican said. “I just need to go in and do the business that needs to be done for Gwinnett and the state. … This happened for a reason, and I think I came out of it stronger than I went in.”
Balfour is no longer the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, a position which gave him power over whether every bill came to the floor for a vote. He lost that job a year ago, after the scandal surfaced but before the indictment.
But on the day of the acquittal, his suspension was lifted, and within hours he was voted back into the Republican caucus and renamed to committees, including as chairman of the Reapportionment Committee.
Through the ordeal, the senator said he learned who his true friends are, those who called and kept him and his family in their thoughts and prayers.
He was humbled to have two former governors — Republican Sonny Perdue and Democrat Roy Barnes — take the stand to defend him. Barnes, especially, is notable, as Balfour began to make waves in the GOP when he stood in the Senate well and called the governor an “S.O.B. — Supreme Ominpotent Being.”
But politics is a game that often ends in friendships. So he is trying not to keep track of the enemies.
Some of those that disappeared from his call sheets may have been involved in trying to hurt him, but others may have simply been unsure how to deal with the awkwardness of the situation, he said.
“It’s behind us,” he said. “Now it’s time to get down to business.”
The focus for 2014 is economic development, the senator said. While Georgia may be coming back from the Recession that has haunted the past several sessions, jobs will continue to be the focus so it can pull ahead.
“There’s jobs and education and things of that sort we can do to help build Georgia,” Balfour said. “I’m looking forward to the next term and helping in any way I can with the issues that help the state and Gwinnett County and my district.”
Leaders have promised a short legislative session, as primaries will move up to May this year. Balfour already faces competition from former Lawrenceville Councilman P.K. Martin, but he said his focus is more on policy than politics at this point.
“I plan on running again and letting the people decide,” he said, adding that he felt confident that, since a jury of his peers saw through the politics of the scandal, the voters would as well. “The people have made a decision.”
For a man who has faced the possibility of a jail cell, political backstabbing is easier to put into perspective. After decades in office, he says the biggest lessons are to pay attention to the details and to slow down and enjoy the ride.
While Balfour was never sure he would be back under the Gold Dome to start the 2014 session, the greater worry was always whether he would return home at all. So he doesn’t see Monday as a triumphant return.
“I consider that Thursday (the day the verdict was rendered) as a victory. Monday is just moving forward,” he said.