Dave Williams - Loyalty secret to Murphy's longevity

In the legislative redistricting that followed the 2000 census, Georgia Democrats were determined to do everything they could to keep control of the General Assembly in a state rapidly turning Republican.

Well, almost everything.

An early version of the new House map put Speaker Tom Murphy, who had represented his West Georgia district since 1961, in a multimember district with fellow Democrat Bill Cummings.

But Murphy, who had served as speaker since 1974, would have none of it. He wouldn't go along with a redistricting plan that would virtually ensure him another term but hurt his longtime friend and ally Cummings.

"His political life was at risk, yet he let the lines be drawn in a way he thought was fair," said Rep. Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta.

Rewarding loyalty with loyalty cost Murphy his seat.

He lost the 2002 election to Republican newcomer Bill Heath, carrying only 46 percent of the vote. Cummings won with 61 percent in his still single-member district.

Loyalty was always a two-way street to Murphy, who died last week at age 83, three years after suffering a severe stroke.

He didn't just demand loyalty; he returned it. And in the days following his death, Democrats, Republicans and other political observers said that was the key to his record longevity.

When he handed over the gavel to protege Terry Coleman in January 2003, Murphy was the longest serving speaker in the nation.

"He provided a kind of leadership his rank and file wanted," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

But staying in power wasn't always easy for Murphy. Over the years, he survived several attempts by Democratic colleagues to wrest the speakership away from him.

Those who backed the upstarts were punished for a time but generally ended up being rehabilitated.

Holmes, who early in his career supported the late Rep. Al Burruss of Marietta against Murphy, went on to become chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee and was the first black lawmaker appointed to the prestigious "green-door" budget subcommittee.

Besides surviving personal challenges to his authority, Murphy also survived changing times by adapting to them.

The same man who before becoming speaker served as floor leader for segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox later forged a strong alliance with black lawmakers.

"By his later years in office, the black caucus had become a key part of the majority caucus," Bullock said. "He realized how his constituency had changed ... and he became increasingly responsive to their concerns."

Murphy tended to let controversial bills through to the House floor, even if he or his rural constituents opposed them.

Examples included the divisive debates over doing away with the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem and the fight over starting a lottery in Georgia.

Murphy, a Primitive Baptist preacher, was morally opposed to gambling.

"He did not try to block it, and he could have," Holmes said. "He felt people should have a right to vote on it."

Murphy was even adaptable enough to work with Republicans when he needed their help.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, who served as House minority leader at the end of Murphy's career, said the speaker asked him to encourage his GOP colleagues to support funding for badly needed sewer improvements in Atlanta.

Rural Democrats, never big fans of urban Atlanta, were against the proposal.

He said, "It's easy to be against Atlanta. But Lynn, as Atlanta goes, so goes our state. We need to do everything we can to help Atlanta."

With Republicans on board, the funding passed. And Murphy got his way.

"He played that House like a rare violin," Westmoreland said. "It was unreal how much control he had."

It's a level of control that the current speaker, Republican Glenn Richardson of Hiram, can only dream of. But it took years to build.

"Tom Murphy's power to some extent was like an accretion of soil in a delta," Bullock said.

That's another reason Murphy's death marks the end of an era. He was willing and able to put in the time to amass that much power.

He was able because the Democratic Party held the majority in the House for all those years.

In today's political climate, one-party control for decades is much less likely.

Will current or future politicians be as willing to stay in one place? Bullock doesn't think so.

Only wrapping up his third year as speaker, Richardson is considered on the short list of potential candidates for governor in 2010.

"If Glenn Richardson was to be in office for 20 years, he could become as powerful," Bullock said. "But I don't think we'll see people wanting to be in a position that long."