It might surprise most people to know how well politicians of different parties actually get along with each other. Legend has it that Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy often told his Republican colleagues from the South to go slam him while campaigning if they needed to. He didn’t mind. We can be sure the Lion of Liberalism was speaking to Republicans who had no Democratic opposition. Or perhaps they did and the senator needed the Republican colleague’s help on a bill now at hand. So politics often goes.
Politics is much like marriage and home life. It’s close living. You best learn and abide by the old adage, “In some things, unity. In all things, love.” Members of legislative bodies do more than sit in a large room of beautiful, classical architecture, listen to speeches, give speeches, and vote. Legislators serve on several committees which is where the nitty-gritty of legislative work takes place. They also often share offices with fellow legislators of a different party. They do business in hallways, elevators and at traffic lights while waiting for the walk signal.
If there’s one place where politics ceases and normal friendships reign, it’s in the break room just off the House or Senate floors where the biggest draw is the coffee. Gotta have coffee early in the morning, during an interminable presentation of a simple bill, and whenever the clock is moving on toward 10 p.m. Coffee and the loud, crowded break room generally restore everyone’s common humanity.
The legendary former Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives Tom Murphy didn’t like the break room. One morning during the 2002 session Murphy scolded House members for going back and forth to the break room during debate. He thundered forth, “If ya’ll would eatcha’ some breakfast before you come here, you could stay away from that coffee and donuts and we could get some work done.” Murphy was powerful but he couldn’t keep House members from their coffee and their place for common humanity.
During the 2000 decade I was typically the second member to reach the House floor every morning. Nobody could beat the former and now deceased state representative Bobby Franklin of east Cobb County who arrived early and mastered every bill. Truth is, many reps of both parties leaned on Franklin for bill information without reading the bills themselves.
Speaker Murphy was early, too. It was his quick visits to the floor each morning between 8:00 and the 10 o’clock convening hour that allowed us to become friends. One morning my two grown daughters were with me. When the aging speaker came by I introduced him to my daughters. He quickly turned to them and said, “Now how can an ugly man like him have two beautiful daughters like you?” He then recalled a visit I paid him years before with a Cobb County friend, Carolyn Sanford, to plead for his support of the so-called “creation bill.”
“So you’re a Southern Baptist, I believe,” he said one morning with his famous half smile. “Well, you Southern Baptists are just about as primitive as us Primitive Baptists.”
Murphy was totally clothed in gruff but his heart was tender.
It was in the break room of the Georgia House that I met and became friends with state representative Tyrone Brooks, one of the House’s most well-known black members. Brooks was an activist, always in the forefront of the civil rights movement. During the lunch hour Brooks and I often found ourselves on the break room couch. Only one year apart in age, we reminisced about the ’60s. I related my sorrow over segregation and the benign neglect toward blacks that enshrouded my growing-up years. He reached to shake and squeeze my hand when I told him about volunteering to teach in a black school to help the city of Meridian, Mississippi, get desegregation underway.
One year Brooks finally convinced Republican House Majority Leader Jerry Keen and me to march with him at Selma. As fate would have it, Brooks was unable to make it to the Selma march the year we were set to join him.
Tom Murphy died in 2007 after 28 years in Georgia politics. The state, particularly its capital city, bears the stamp of his contributions.
Tyrone Brooks resigned from the House in 2015 and pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud and no contest to federal wire and mail fraud charges.
I’m glad I knew both the cantankerous cigar-chomper and the formidable civil rights leader. As Brooks put it, “You and I might be proof that a Democrat and a Republican can love each other.”