If you are familiar with Georgia State politics, then you know the name Tom Murphy. Murphy served as Speaker of the House of Representatives in Georgia for 28 years, from 1974 to 2002.
He was described often as the most powerful man in Georgia. His time as Speaker saw five governors come and go – Jimmy Carter, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.
I first met Tom B. Murphy in the early 1980’s. I was a technician for a Richmond, Va. based company that manufactured and serviced Legislative Voting Machines called International Roll Call.
In 1976, I voted for Jimmy Carter. I plead ignorance. I assumed I was a Democrat, because most Virginians were in that era.
During Carter’s presidency, I learned that I was a Republican. My atonement came in 1980 when I voted for Ronald Reagan. I have not found a Democrat since that was worthy of my vote.
So, when I met Tom Murphy, I dared not mention my Party preference. The powerful Democrat was the most intimidating man I had ever met. He was very nice, but he intimidated the hell out of the 20-something version of me.
We had recently installed a new computerized voting system in the Georgia House and they experienced a sudden system lock-up. A vote had been taken, the Clerk was ordered to lock the vote, and the system simply halted without tallying the vote.
The system was re-booted and the vote was taken a second time.
No I am going to divulge a little known and dirty little secret that few were privy to. Nobody in the room had a clue if the bill passed or failed on the first vote – except Tom Murphy. Speaker Murphy was not the only speaker to have a live tally display for his eyes only. Several states requested the same thing. So, when Murphy ordered that the vote be locked, he knew the results – and it was very close. But when Murphy gave the order to lock the vote, the outcome was exactly what he wanted.
During the re-boot process, enough arms were twisted to reverse the outcome on the second vote attempt.
Only Tom Murphy knew this. He called my boss who tracked me down at a friend’s house. The next flight to Atlanta left Richmond in 45 minutes and I had better be on that plane. They would ship me some clothes down when they could.
I arrived at the Georgia State Capitol building in torn bluejeans and a flannel shirt. You need three things in order to get onto the floor of the Georgia House when they are in session. A coat, a tie and a gold name badge. Margaret Smith was the boss in the clerk’s office. She gave me her gold badge and said go!
Of course I was challenged at the door.
“We have a coat and tie rule” and then he looked at the badge for my name and finished his sentence “Mrs. Smith”. (He knew the name well!)
I replied “Then would you please tell Speaker Murphy you will not let his voting machine technician on the floor”.
Jaw dropping, he opened the door and allowed me to pass.
I tried to slither up to the area in front of the dais to the area they call “the well”. I took a seat beside the House Photographer and tried to make myself as transparent as I could – dressed like a street bum.
Now, there were 3 large chairs on the dais. The center one was for the Speaker.
I looked up after a minute and saw Speaker Murphy wiggling his pointer finger in a “come here” motion – and he was looking right at me. As I walked up on the dais, he pointed for me to take a seat in the big chair to his right.
It was then that I noticed the television cameras.
Whenever I find myself in a horribly uncomfortable situation, I always think back to that exact moment. And the current uncomfortable situation is not even close in comparison.
Fortunately, everything worked perfectly as vote after vote was successfully completed.
Day 2 I had a suit and tie. Still no problems. The system worked perfectly. Still really out of my comfort zone sitting where everyone was watching me. By day 3 I was allowed to move down into the “well”.
I spent 2 weeks “babysitting” the machine by day and hours each night trying to break the machine so I could fix the problem. Nothing. Nada.
I got to know the House Photographer quite well. I believe he said he was Speaker Murphy’s brother-in-law. Quite well paid, too.
A parade of celebrities passed through and were honored. I met and shook hands with the Atlanta Falcon’s quarterback Steve Bartkowski, Hollywood star and Georgia “native” Burt Reynolds and a number of others. (Note: Reynolds has often claimed to have been born in Waycross, Ga. but was actually born in Lansing, Mi.)
I got a real immersion into politics those 2 weeks. And in a stunning display of the power that Tom Murphy wielded, I witnessed a stunning moment I will never forget.
A bill was up for discussion and it concerned visitation rights for grandparents. The consensus was overwhelmingly against putting the children through an additional round of court battles and visitation hearings after the parental divorce proceedings had exacted a pound of psychological flesh from the children involved. There was no doubt that this bill was going down in flames.
Until Speaker Murphy took to the floor. Not as Speaker, but as the “gentleman from Bremen, Ga”.
He told the tale of why he no longer practices family law.
A distraught grandmother came to him several years earlier for help in seeing her granddaughter. It seems that the woman’s son had tragically died a decade earlier leaving behind his young bride and a newborn daughter.
The young Mom was barely able to feed herself financially, and was simply unable to care for her daughter.
The grandmother gladly took in the child and raised her for 10 years. The Mother was a big part of her young daughter’s life and spent as much time with her as possible, but Grandma was the mother for all intents and purposes for a decade.
Then the mother met a nice man and married. And the mother and child could finally be reunited in the same home. It was tough for the Grandmother, but she knew the girl should be with her mom.
And she could finally be just a Grandmother.
And everything was right with the world until the new husband adopted the girl and decided that it would be best to cut all ties with her “old” family as she had a new family now. He told the grandma she could not see the girl ever again.
In tears, the woman went to Murphy. He said he spent hours and hours digging through law books and had to finally tell the woman that there was nothing he could do. And it tore his heart out and he vowed never again to practice family law.
When Murphy was finished speaking, there was not a dry eye in the House – including mine.
There was also not a single Nay vote when the vote was taken.
They said Tom Murphy was so powerful that he could change the fate of a bill with a nod.
I don’t know about a nod, but the man was amazing.
And he was also called Newt Gingrich’ nemesis.
Needless to say, I followed the career of Tom Murphy with interest over the years. And when Newt Gingrich lit up Murphy’s radar, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. For Gingrich. Or so I thought.
Gingrich was first elected to the US Congress in 1978 and became Democrat Muphy’s Congressman. Did I mention Murphy was an extremely partisan Democrat? He called himself a “Yellow Dog” Democrat, which meant that he would vote for a yellow dog before he would vote for a Republican (although Murphy said that his wife reportedly voted for Newt in one of his unsuccessful bids for Congress prior to 1978).
So, with Murphy in charge of redistricting after the 1990 census, and Gingrich rising fast, already the Republican Whip and headed for Speaker, the Georgia Speaker flexed his political muscle in an effort to get rid of Georgia’s (at the time) only Republican Congressman and solidify Democratic power.
The newly drawn districts featured 3 majority black districts and was a grand attempt to help the Democrats maintain power.
When the dust settled after the 1992 election, not only did Gingrich win reelection, he won nearly 58% of the vote in a district drawn to get rid of the Republican rising star. And what was seen as an epic failure for Murphy and the Democrats, 3 additional Congressional seats were won by Republicans. Prior to the 1992 election, Georgia had 10 Congressmen. 9 Democrats and one Republican – Newt. After the election, Georgia had 4 Republicans and 7 Democrats (they picked up an extra seat in the 1990 census).
Gingrich went on to become Speaker and rest, as they say, is history. The Democrats tried to keep Newt Gingrich down, but it backfired.
Newt has some issues that he will undoubtedly be forced to defend ad nauseum. First by the Republicans now looking to do what the Georgia Democrats tried to do unsuccessfully in 1992 – put Newt back in his box. And possibly, given the recent polls, Barack Obama and the National Democrat Machine may soon try to do as well.
The issues leading to the resignation of Newt Gingrich from Congress came in 1998, just 3 days after winning election to his 11th term.
News reporting, spin and the political landscape have come a long way since 1998. The press decided what was news and what was not. There was no balance. No fairness in the news in 1998. Fox News was still in diapers and accessible to few households. CNN was the big boy on the cable block and NBC, ABC and CBS ruled the roost.
In looking back to the “declining” years of Newt Gingrich, it is nearly impossible to say for certain if the media coverage was unfairly slanted against the Speaker and forced a chain of events that included $300,000 in sanctions for ethics violations against the Speaker. One major piece of the ethics violation was his claiming tax exempt status for a college course he taught that was seen by Democrats as being for “political purposes”. Newt did sign a statement and agreed to the sanctions. That statement read, in part:
“In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee”
But the House Ethics Committee could not agree on the serious charge of tax evasion and left that question for the IRS to determine. In 1999, a year after his resignation from Congress, the IRS cleared Gingrich.
How much of what I recall about Gingrich’s problems that caused me to write him off months ago as a serious candidate would pass the scrutiny test today in light of the influence of Fox News and the right wing blogosphere?
I would speculate that the faked letter that George W. Bush had to face concerning his National Guard duty would have slipped by unnoticed in 1998.
And some of what I recalled that led me to write off Gingrich were absolutely false. One very troubling story widely reported at the time was that Gingrich served his former wife with divorce papers as she lay on her hospital death bed.
I am happy to say that Newt’s first wife, Jackie Battley is alive and well today. And while it is true they discussed divorce when she was in the hospital, she was not near death. And it was, in fact, Battley who had requested the divorce months earlier.
The Washington Post has a pretty good article here if you need to know more.
We all know that Newt Gingrich was behind the Republican Revolution and was a big part of bringing the first Republican majority to the House in 40 years.
As I dig deeper, it appears that my “recollection” of Newt Gingrich has been severely compromised by inaccurate reporting at the time.
And as one who is firmly in the “we can do better than Romney” camp, I am officially giving Gingrich “further review”.
Newt survived the best that a powerful Tom Murphy could dish out, and came out on top. He vaulted Republicans to the top and is the most knowledgeable candidate in the race. He has made mistakes, been on the wrong side on some issues in the past and has proven to be a “lightning rod” in Washington.
I also see a smart man who has had more than a decade to mature and reflect. And I think this has been a positive period in his life.
While I am not ready to throw my fedora in Newt’s ring just yet, I am willing to reconsider my previous position. Disappointing performances by Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and the fact that several folks on my hopeful’s list did n0t get in the race have forced Gingrich back into consideration.
We shall see.
And by the way, if you are interested, after 2 weeks in Atlanta, the Voting Machine once again locked up during a vote. I was not paying attention, talking to the Photographer, and noticed a sudden quiet. Speaker Murphy was again giving me the “come hither” signal. With all eyes on me, sweating bullets, I approached the console screen to have a look.
The screen was totally blank except for a greater than sign (>) in the top left corner. I knew immediately that this was “Attention” mode and that the clerk had hit the “Attention” key – which is now called the “Escape” key on modern keyboards. This allows programmers to enter commands while the program is temporarily suspended.
I simply pressed the “attention” key again to put the program right back where is was. With the exact same vote tally, nothing changed, nothing lost. He locked the vote, got the print out and the problem was solved!
Oh, and I told him to stop wearing that Corduroy Blazer with the stiff sleeve that was pressing the key accidentally when he went to lock the vote. I sent them a plastic cap cover to prevent the key from being pressed inadvertently in the future.
Murphy lost his bid for reelection in 2002 after 42 years in the Georgia General Assembly to Republican Bill Heath. Murphy served as Speaker from 1973 until his defeat in 2002.
And sadly, Tom B. Murphy passed away in 2007 at the age of 83. A partisan Democrat whom I respected a great deal.