Wednesday, Feb. 19, came after the chill of snow and ice but before the heat of crossover day. It was a remarkably unremarkable day as far as headlines are concerned. Those days, mercifully, allow some time to have genuine conversations and make observations without necessarily knowing what you’re looking for.
I began the day chatting with Rep. John Yates of Griffin. He is someone I’ve known a good while. He taught me what it was like to be in the minority party while conducting yourself with dignity and resolve. He’s 92 and a World War II veteran. He’ll be standing for re-election this year.
I had wanted a younger co-worker to meet him and enjoy the same perspective that I’ve enjoyed from him over the years. Just the conversation setting up the lunch lasted about 45 minutes. Lunch was well over 2 hours. If and when you have the opportunity to talk to a WWII veteran, do it — But let them do the talking. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be reminded often why they are called the Greatest Generation. You’ll also be reminded why this whole experiment of representative government we participate in was and is worth fighting for.
I spent much of the morning sitting in the press row at the back of the Senate chamber. I was unaware of the agenda of the day, but managed to catch the rare occasion of the Senate presenting a resolution honoring a member of the House. In this case, it was the Dean of the House, Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus. While Smyre was officially being recognized for his induction into the Civil Rights Walk of Fame, the honors and related speeches had a lot more to do with his 40 years of service to the Georgia legislature.
Smyre was first elected to the House in 1974. Georgia has changed a lot in the four decades that have elapsed since that time. The tone of the mutual respect set during this ceremony foreshadowed one a few weeks later as the House debated honoring Dr. Martin Luther King with a permanent statue on the Capitol grounds. It was not about party or race, but about it being the right thing to do. You don’t have to look back 40 years to remember a time when this would not have been the case. Smyre, like Rep. Yates, is a living part of history with unique observations and experience offered to fellow members of the legislature.
And then, finally, it was a day that Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance — a former high school class mate of mine — announced he would not seek re-election. Chance spoke of his decade in the legislature in a speech to his peers, and talked about family — his and theirs.
In reaching his decision to leave as a relatively young man and with higher offices potentially available to him, he spoke of his middle daughter. He said her first words were “Bye Daddy.” He spoke of his newest daughter and said he was going to ensure that her first words wouldn’t be the same.
And with that, it was a reminder that for all the trappings those of us who don’t spend regular time at the capitol project on the members, there is the stark reality that most serve long, thankless hours for the salary of $17,000 per year. They are asked to solve problems that we as a citizenry don’t want to invest the time to understand. They are expected to be at civic breakfasts, luncheons and dinners — and on weekends too — and are expected to let us tell them that all of our problems are their fault.
There’s experience with most of these members. There are human qualities in all. And while there are often highly publicized examples of those who abuse power and privilege, the vast majority are those who are giving time away from their families and businesses to try to make our state a better place.
Sometimes, we just need a slow day to remind us of those stories we’re usually too busy to report, because we were all too busy to observe.
Charlie Harper is the editor of PeachPundit.com, a website dedicated to Georgia state and local politics.