Thompson was first elected to the Georgia House in 1980, running in an election with no Republican challengers. He estimates there were only a dozen Republicans in the 180-member House at the time.
“When I got there, you could hardly see the Speaker’s podium through the smoke,” Thompson said. “Everybody smoked. The ladies didn’t even have a bathroom. They went down the hall to the public ladies’ restroom.”
Thompson recalled a time in the 1980s when former Democratic state Senator and Representative Cathey Steinberg led the move for the female lawmakers to have their own restroom.
“Cathey Steinberg led the charge to change that and brought the press into the bathroom, and I was in there,” Thompson said. “Fortunately, I was through and walking out the door, but God, they had a good time with it.”
Most lawmakers at the time were in their 60s and 70s, Thompson said.
The divide at the time, he said, was more urban versus rural than it was Democrat versus Republican.
The long-reigning “yellow dog Democrat,” Tom Murphy, who engineered the abolition of the congressional seats of such high profile Republicans as Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr, was the House speaker.
“I was 29 years old when I walked into his office and he was going to tell me my committee assignments or I was supposed to ask him for them,” Thompson said.
Before meeting the powerful speaker, Thompson called on the Marietta Democrats and state representatives Al Burruss and Joe Mack Wilson for advice on how to act.
“Because you need to listen when you’re down there young,” he said. “And I went in and he told me two things. He said, ‘son, I’m going to only ask you for two things, ever.’ And I said, ‘what’s that Mr. Speaker?’ He said, ‘don’t ever lie to me. And don’t let them buy you out in that hall.’ It’s stuck with me all these years. That’s the lines you don’t cross.”
Ehrhart, meanwhile, was first elected in 1988 at the age of 28, having lost his first race to Thompson in 1985.
“The Republican wave was cresting in Cobb,” Ehrhart said. “East Cobb had been Republican for a while. West Cobb, everybody could see it coming.”
After qualifying on the Republican ticket, Ehrhart found longtime state Rep. Joe Mack Wilson (D-Marietta), chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, had opted to run in the same post against him.
“With 30 seconds to go, Joe Mack Wilson being the crafty codger he was, he went down and said, ‘I’m qualifying for Post 4. I can beat that Ehrhart boy.’ I get the call, I’m going ‘oh boy.’ I didn’t qualify against a 30-year incumbent. I wasn’t that arrogant. He taught me everything I needed to know about how to run a campaign where the other guy’s playing rough, and I’ll leave it at that.”
The key issue of the Wilson-Ehrhart race came down to the fact that Ehrhart had discovered Wilson hadn’t paid taxes on his Marietta Square jewelry store for a decade, Ehrhart said.
“And I brought it up,” he said. “The paper ran with it. You know, ‘chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who writes your taxes, doesn’t pay his own.’ And when confronted with it, you’ve got to understand the arrogance of that time, Wilson said, ‘that’s just a low-interest loan from the government.’ Only the little people pay taxes, basically. I beat Joe Mack 56-44 and I was very, very young. Tom Murphy said, ‘yeah, his office will be in the hallway. Republicans are like grasshoppers, we squash ’em with our boots,’” Ehrhart said.
Ehrhart ran for the Republican House whip position and got it in 1992, where he would lock horns with Speaker Murphy over the years.
“Somebody had to feed the red meat to the partisans, and that was my job,” Ehrhart said. “Immediately, I became the pit bull. That was my job.”
Ehrhart called it both an awesome and, at times, painful role to play.
“Speaker Murphy played this game to win,” Ehrhart said. “He had a ruthless streak.”
Outnumbered by the Democrats, Ehrhart started the Republican Daily Briefing, in which the Republican caucus reviewed and read every bill that was filed.
“We don’t have the votes, so our only chance to make a difference is to be smarter, be better prepared, know everything, because pretty much that was Murphy’s House,” Ehrhart said. “He’d pass out cards for people to read the questions.”
Thompson, who was elected to the Senate in 1990, said knowing the rules is the key to being a successful legislator.
“Many times we waylaid legislation, stopped bad legislation, passed good legislation, knowing the rules,” Thompson said.
He said an example was in last year’s failure of the Cobb Legislative Delegation to approve a new reapportionment map for the Cobb Board of Commissioners that reflected the latest 2010 Census numbers.
“You know what we did last year with the commission districts,” Thompson said. “By not agreeing to a motion to agree and that let the judge draw it and kept Mableton together. Experience is the thing that you can’t get without being there. That’s the reason that probably term limits are a mistake in the long run because if you look at it by the time somebody’s been there eight years, and they’re ready to be turned out, they’ve just found the bathroom. Or you can look at it that it turns over so much that the people that are there for 30 years in the hall, the lobbyists and bureaucrats, are really running the General Assembly.”
Terry Coleman followed Murphy as House Speaker in 2002 before Glenn Richardson was elected to the post in 2005.
While the public may remember Richardson for the scandal surrounding his alleged affair with a lobbyist, suicide attempt and January 2010 resignation, Ehrhart said the fact remains that Richardson was the driving force behind Republicans taking the majority in the Georgia House.
“He put 300,000 miles on that truck, went to every little district in Georgia, and helped all these people win,” Ehrhart said, listing other lawmakers, such as state Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb), who were also influential in turning the tide from Democrat to Republican.
Previously, Speaker Murphy had the ability to hold the white rural Democrats and black urban Democrats together in one coalition, Ehrhart said.
“The quarterback who had held this coalition together was gone, and then you had a real nice guy (Coleman) that got the speakership, he didn’t have the ruthless bone, and it would have taken someone even worse than Murphy to hold that Democrat coalition together because we were fracturing it,” Ehrhart said.
Ehrhart said the Republicans helped to splinter the Democratic coalition by forcing votes on controversial issues.
“Up in Atlanta they had the vote to hold that coalition of liberal minorities and white conservatives together,” he said. “Every time we made them vote to hold that together, they had to go back and explain that to the citizens on affirmative action and welfare. And when these upstart Republicans like Glenn and I would go to these little towns where they’re bedrock conservative, and all we had to do is point out the vote and get it out to constituents, and they were going, ‘you voted for what?’ We did it enough times, and these people got beat. We beat them.”
Ehrhart said the biggest change he’s noticed over the years is one of public transparency. When he was first elected, there wasn’t the 24-hour news cycle.
“That really wasn’t there, so it’s changed the culture,” he said. “Nobody really knew what was happening in the General Assembly until going into the late ’90s probably would be my estimation. And what’s happened now is everything that we do is under a microscope. Good. I’ve been pushing that. Come down and look. Come down and see me eating my fancy lobbyist lunch in the cafeteria when I race out and get a sandwich.”
The benefit of the added transparency is that residents are more connected with their lawmakers, he said.
“And that can only be good. It’s caused huge changes. Because everything that we do is seen by the constituency, it’s changed how we do business in a good way, in a way that says we have to be more accountable to those we represent or we won’t come back.”