Behind the loss of Josh McKoon’s Senate chairmanship

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Josh McKoon, then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee speaking in favor of his "religious liberty" bill in 2015. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

It is tempting, very tempting, to write that Republicans in the state Senate have gone to the mattresses in yet another fight over “religious liberty” legislation.

But that would be wrong.

They have gone to the pillows. Big, fluffy ones filled with eiderdown. Pillows that leave no marks. Pillows weighted with friendly criticism that recipients can almost snuggle up to.

Last week, at a private club in downtown Atlanta, members of the Senate Republican caucus met to settle on their agenda and the organizational basics for the coming session that begins Monday. With great politeness, and without even mentioning him by name, Josh McKoon’s compadres ousted him from his leadership position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The GOP senators combined two committees that handle legal issues into one, and — gosh, darn it — they ended up with one chairman too many.

Several motivations for this decision come to the minds of newspaper scribblers and other depraved types who refuse to see the best in human nature.

Several years back, McKoon led a tough fight for caps on gifts from lobbyists to legislators. His most important jousting partner was House Speaker David Ralston. McKoon won that fight, but his name has since become the kiss of death when it appears on any bill that moves to the House. Not that anyone will actually say this for publication.

Last year, out of concern that a re-elected U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson afflicted with Parkinson’s disease might not be able to finish out the third term he was seeking, McKoon introduced legislation that would have prevented Gov. Nathan Deal from naming a substitute. Only a special election would suffice, McKoon’s bill said.

It’s hard to anger both a sitting governor and a U.S. senator in a single bill, but that one might have done it.

The Columbus legislator has seen funding for his community suddenly disappear from state budgets as the numbers are crunched by the Legislature.

“A community has to be very careful about who it selects as leaders to represent its interest in the General Assembly,” the House speaker told members of Columbus’ ruling class last October, according to the Ledger-Enquirer newspaper. “I tell House members all the time their effectiveness comes by relationships and trust that other members have in you. If you don’t have these, you cannot be very effective.”

Then there is the “religious liberty” issue. McKoon has been a backer of the legislation three years running, though he was not listed as a sponsor of last year’s effort. He has spoken to GOP groups throughout the state on the issue, criticizing GOP leadership and top Georgia campaign contributors — make that businesses — who have opposed him. Some of his Senate colleagues have objected when he’s done this in their districts. And remember that the president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, is in the process of deciding whether or not to seek a promotion in 2018.

But what is happening to McKoon has nothing to do with any of that. “It’s pretty poor journalism to think that this is about religious liberty,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said. “It’s completely disconnected.”

First of all, the majority leader said, he has nothing but good things to say about McKoon, whom he described as an “extremely bright and thoughtful senator.”

Secondly, said Cowsert, Republicans in the Senate agree with McKoon on “religious liberty” legislation, which many view as a shield for religious Christian conservatives who object to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that gay marriage is a constitutional right.

The majority leader is right. Last year, the House sent over H.B. 757, an innocuous measure that underlined the right of preachers not to marry anyone they didn’t want to. The Senate toughened the bill, which passed both chambers.

Gov. Nathan Deal, not wishing to expose Georgia to the reaction that was already befalling North Carolina, vetoed it.

During that 2016 session, “religious liberty” legislation was a stated priority of the Senate Republican caucus. On Thursday, GOP senators will gather at the state Capitol to unveil their 2017 to-do list.

I asked Cowsert if “religious liberty” legislation was on that list. He said no. “Once a bill has been vetoed by the governor, it takes more, overwhelming support to bring it back,” Cowsert said.

In other words, it becomes an exercise in futility.

Cowsert’s main point was that the Senate has only nine lawyer-members, six of them Republican, himself included. Staffing multiple legal committees was a logistical impossibility — hence the need to shrink the number.

I mentioned to Cowsert that John Perry, the Journal-Constitution’s database reporter, had found that McKoon’s Senate Judiciary Committee handled fewer than half the bills in 2015 and 2016 that the same committee had considered during two-year terms only a few years ago.

“That proves my point,” Cowsert said. “That shows we don’t need two committees.”

But given that bills are assigned their destinations by Senate leadership, the fraction also might be evidence that more sensitive issues were being steered away from the Columbus lawmaker well before the current festivities.

McKoon is an affable, curly-haired lawyer who is both extremely polite and extremely uncompromising. He’s ambitious, but that’s hardly a sin in the Capitol. Rather, he has become inconvenient, and in the realpolitik world of the Legislature, that’s important. Hence the pillow fight.

His colleagues need him defused, but don’t want him to become a martyr of the GOP base. Nonetheless, McKoon appears to be toying with the idea.

“I am excited to serve in whatever capacity I’m asked to,” McKoon wrote in a text message to me. “Regardless of where I am assigned, I look forward to continuing to work on issues important to my district.”

He’d been more forthcoming a day before in an interview with Brian Pritchard of Fetchyournews.com, a north Georgia news website.

McKoon indicated that the loss of his leadership position wouldn’t prevent him from pursuing “religious liberty” legislation again this year. He placed it on the same list with fights over campus carry, school choice and ethics in government.

“All of these are bills that have been offered by members that have been frustrated by committee chairs or by Republican leadership,” McKoon said in that interview. “So if we say that, because it’s hard to pass, we’re not going to work on it, then there’s not a whole lot left for us to work on.”

Which is not to say that pillow fights can’t get serious. Ask any sleepless wife who harbors ambitions of becoming a widow.


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