My association with Glenn Richardson spanned a decade. When I was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2000, Richardson was already there serving as a burr in the saddle to legendary Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy. This he did, not through contrariness or pettiness, but by posing pertinent and persistent questions to the Speaker about bills and about various rulings of the Speaker. Murphy’s stare-downs from the podium didn’t seem to bother the much younger legislator. Richardson enjoyed his work.
I first got to know Richardson when he became Minority Leader in 2002. Our friendship grew closer two years later, however, in 2004. While I was campaigning hard, but losing a congressional race, Richardson and other Republicans were traversing the entire state, working to get a Republican majority in the House. They were successful, and nobody worked harder to bring it about than Richardson and Cobb County’s own Rep. Sharon Cooper, who was also the Republican Caucus Chairman.
Soon after the ’04 general election that placed Republicans in the majority, House Republicans elevated Richardson from Minority Leader to Speaker. I received a phone call from Richardson asking if I would work for him. My fancy title would be House Messenger, but I told Richardson that I would gladly assist him any way I could, title or not.
The bulk of my duties took place on the House floor upon the podium. I sorted bills, kept lists of speakers on bills, answered questions of new House members who had not yet learned the ropes, kept the day’s agenda before the Speaker (or tried), doused a few intra-party brush fires, and relayed urgent (and not so urgent) messages of desires, dreams and d’ruthers from House members to the Speaker. From 10 a.m. to sometimes 10 or 11 p.m. it was often Tension City, but it was satisfying and it was important because what took place in the room affected over 8 million people.
In 2009 after the legislative session, I resigned to run for state school superintendent. Already in 2008 the Speaker’s personal and family problems had begun to mount. Most readers of this column hardly need to have them repeated. Suffice it to say that he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist, his marriage ended in divorce, three close friends died in a plane crash and he attempted suicide. In late 2009 the Governor and some of the Speaker’s closest friends and supporters in the House persuaded Richardson to step down.
Rather than try to state what I learned from this man who is almost two decades younger than I am, I will simply describe what I saw in him.
First of all, he had an incredibly strong, analytical mind. Reading many pages and absorbing them fully took mere seconds. He also had a cheerful personality. A winsome, authentic laugh melted quite a few potential blow-ups. He kept his opponents close. More than once he said, “Let those who disagree with me be the first ones to come to the podium.” Nine times out of 10, his opponents left laughing as well. At the podium, in the halls, in the office, I never saw in the Speaker an ounce of pretense or self-importance.
Why is all of this significant? It’s significant because most of what we know about public officials is second-hand knowledge. Practically all that we learn about them is received through the filter of news. If only we could wait and make our judgments of people after getting to know them just a little better. I literally stood elbow to elbow by Richardson, often 12 hours a day. He did not blow up every five minutes, though you would think he did from watching the six o’clock news.
His moral failure aside, Richardson was not pompous. His politics were Republican, but his heart and spirit were populist.
It’s also significant because it provides a cautionary example of a fallen leader. Why is it that politicians, preachers, generals and CEOs seem to lead the way in crashing and burning? For one thing, they are all leaders, and they are so visible. No doubt their position affords more opportunity for failure, more temptation.
I’m grateful for the many leaders who have not fallen, and they are legion. Billy Graham is a superb example. I’m also glad that my friend Glenn Richardson is on his feet again, still determined to use his considerable gifts.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.