Within a few days after this article goes to print, state House Republicans will have either tidily resolved a temporary political crisis by anointing a new speaker of the House – or be embroiled in a fractious and embarrassing power struggle that could cripple the state GOP for years to come.
The present situation began, of course, in mid-November, when Speaker Glenn Richardson told House Republicans in a conference call that he'd tried to kill himself a few days earlier, in part because he was distraught over his divorce last year. Over the next couple of weeks, concerns over Richardson's mental state subsided and even House Democrats were expressing sympathy and support for the speaker.
Then came the interview. Talking to WAGA-TV/Channel 5 reporter Dale Russell in a long piece that aired Nov. 30, Richardson's ex-wife, Susan, said she was finally speaking out in an effort to set the record straight and get her former husband to leave her alone. She portrayed him as something of a possessive stalker bent on bullying and "guilting" her into reconciling with him. For instance, she said, Richardson had sent her 49 text messages while she was out of town with another man, accusing her of abandoning their children and threatening to use the Georgia State Patrol to find her. She even doubted the suicide attempt was anything more than his attempt at emotional manipulation.
And, oh yes, she said, her ex's much-rumored affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist had most certainly been real and that he had threatened to punish AGL if the lobbyist was fired – and Susan Richardson had an armload of e-mails and documents to prove it.
For his fellow Republicans, the problem with keeping Richardson on as speaker post-interview wasn't that he had a mistress. Objecting to that faux pas would, in many cases, be sheer hypocrisy. No, the problem was that the speaker's alleged (legally speaking, that is) mistress worked for a major utility that would've benefited from legislation that he co-sponsored. That accusation, brought forth in a hastily dismissed ethics complaint in early 2007, gets into the territory of conflict of interest and corruption.
So the speaker had to go.
In a Dec. 3 conference call announcing his resignation to the House Republican Caucus, Richardson told his side of the story.
"I think everybody was surprised by the level of detail the speaker went into about his personal life," said one lawmaker who was in on the legislator-only phone call.
Another described Richardson's frank revelations as "the most personal phone call possible – it was his explanation to all of us."
As for the 49 text messages, Richardson said the reason he kept texting his wife is that he didn't know where their teenage children were and she wouldn't answer his calls. He threatened to call the state patrol because he was considering filing a missing persons report to locate his kids, he explained.
Contrary to what the ex-Mrs. Richardson told WAGA-TV, Richardson also said his suicide attempt was not a stunt or a plea for sympathy; he even told House members what kind of pills he'd taken and how many.
"Folks were probably more sympathetic to the speaker after getting off the phone call," one Republican told CL.
One GOP lawmaker said that the call reaffirmed "our grim resolve that the speaker should step down." Richardson himself "admitted he could no longer be effective as speaker" – either emotionally or politically, one House member said.
But just as important as Richardson's fragile mental health are the lingering conflict of interest allegations stemming from what Susan Richardson called her ex-husband's "full-out affair" with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist at the same time he was co-sponsoring legislation sought by the utility in 2007.
Apparently, Richardson didn't try to refute those accusations in the Dec. 3 call. In fact, he admitted to legislators that the affair had happened.
Within minutes of the call, Richardson announced that he was resigning from the House, where he had served for 14 years – five of them as speaker.
"To my many friends and supporters throughout the state, thank you for standing by me even in the most difficult times," Richardson wrote in his resignation later. "I recently made public that I have suffered from depression for many years. I continue to seek treatment and have made progress in dealing with this disease. In making this public disclosure, it was my hope to raise awareness and encourage others who suffer from this disease to come forward and seek treatment."
As one House Republican said: "Everyone is so relieved that the crisis is over."
Not so fast.
Under House rules, when Richardson formally steps down Dec. 31, Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek, immediately takes the job.
Early last week, various GOP sources told CL that the caucus seemed to be leaning toward elevating Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, the current majority leader, to the post. But during Thursday's conference call, it seemed the House leaders had decided to keep Burkhalter as speaker, at least through the upcoming session, which convenes in less than six weeks.
"At the beginning of the phone call, Mark made it very clear that he intends to be speaker," said one colleague. Burkhalter even announced publicly that he was not pursuing the top job at the Georgia World Congress Center, as had been widely rumored.
Over the weekend, however, rumblings from within the GOP caucus made it clear that not every member of the rank-and-file was willing to go along with the leadership's decree. In an open letter, Rep. Michael Harden, R-Toccoa, called for an election to legitimize the speaker.
"We have nothing to fear from open, transparent, and honest government," he wrote. "Let us clear the air and start fresh by electing a Speaker with a clear mandate to lead."
According to Harden, simply letting Burkhalter claim the speaker's job without having been elected "is not acceptable to me or to a significant number of my colleagues."
On Monday, the AJC predicted that a GOP caucus meeting could take place in Macon on Dec. 11. Over on the GOP-dominated website Peach Pundit, speculation had already begun on who might be willing to challenge Burkhalter and Keen to lead the House.
In other words, it's far from a done deal.