In the age of bipartisanship, can Georgia lawmakers resist party pressure?

Last week, Georgian MP Mesha Mainor left the Democratic Party in dramatic fashion for the Republican Party.

She held a press conference at the Georgia Capitol and wrote an editorial in the New York Post explaining why she left the Democrats after decades and saying that her former party cared more about teachers’ unions than about children.

“It’s the kitchen table issues that many Democratic leaders fail to address that are affecting your life, your liberty and your pursuit of happiness,” wrote Mainor, who was first elected to Atlanta’s District 57 in 2020. “Republicans are more focused on these issues.”

Mainor’s move, which makes her the only black Republican among the state’s 236 lawmakers, drew praise from Georgia GOP Chair Josh McKoon. It “does not reflect a change in her approach as a state legislature, but rather reflects the reality that the Georgia Republican Party is a place where diversity of opinion is welcomed, where diverse ideas that lead to innovative solutions to public policy are celebrated lead.” not convicted,” McKoon said during the press conference.

Georgia Democrats responded that they were actually the open-minded. “Your nominees for office must take an oath to the Republican Party,” Georgia House Member Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs) told the Atlanta Civic Circle. “And if you look at their voting record, a few renegades have voted against things just to make a statement. But mostly they vote as a block.”

As for the Democrats? “We don’t tell people how to vote. There are certain core principles that we just expect everyone to agree on,” Roberts said.

Red and Blue Legislation

Mainor claims that if she becomes a Republican, her votes will not change in the future. “An ‘R’ next to my name doesn’t change who I am,” she said during the July 11 news conference. “Priorities: Education, Public Safety, Jobs, Healthcare, and Senior Resources.”

But political experts say that in Georgia — as in state legislatures across the country, which are characterized by one-party control, bipartisan politics, an urban-rural divide and uncompetitive races — the “D” or “R” comes after a politician The name says a lot more about how they will vote than it does about the politics of the district they represent or their past election results.

“The weakening of our democratic norms has its roots in an extreme partisan polarization that extends beyond political differences to an existential conflict,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and author of How Democracies Die.

That doesn’t mean that every bill is about a partisan vote. Of the approximately 250 bills eventually presented to Governor Brian Kemp in the 2023 legislative session, the majority passed with bipartisan support. But that’s because many of them were uncontroversial, said Roberts, the Democratic state representative.

“We agree with the vast majority of these because they are not really controversial. Whether I find them valuable to Georgians or not is another question,” she said.

Broadly speaking, Republicans across the country favor tougher bills, lower taxes and less gun regulation, but more regulation on abortion and LGBTQ issues — while Democrats choose to vote in the opposite direction.

In March, for example, Georgia Republicans successfully passed a controversial law that severely limits the gender-sensitive care physicians can provide to transgender patients under the age of 18. The bill passed the House and Senate by a 96-75 vote, 31-21, despite strong participation from doctors, trans teens and their parents in the Capitol who opposed the bill.

Meanwhile, state Democrats introduced 17 gun control bills last term, ranging from requiring background checks and waiting periods to flashy laws restricting firearms for people with mental health problems. The Republicans, who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, did not allow anyone to vote, even on the committee.

The education funding bill that angered Mainor, Senate Bill 233, would have funded a $6,500-a-year coupon for Georgia public school enrollment in a private school. This was unique because it was a sensitive issue that didn’t quite fit party lines. The bill ultimately failed to pass because a dozen Republicans opposed it.

“I think the school choice issue showed you that the caucus allows you to vote according to your conscience in your district,” said Assemblyman Kasey Carpenter (R-Dalton). “A lot of Republicans voted against it, and I don’t think anyone was burned at the stake because of that.”

Carpenter admitted he feels pressure to vote with the party on some issues, but says “it really all just depends on the issue and how big the leeway is on that issue.”

Georgia Mesha Mainor switched from a Democrat to a Republican last week after a backlash over an education funding bill during the 2023 session. (youtube)

Lonely in the middle

The partisan, all-or-nothing approach to governing is not healthy, says State Senator Sonya Halpern (D-Buckhead). “There are enough people who believe in common sense and pragmatic approaches. I think people want us to get things done.”

Atlanta’s Halpern and Roberts, along with Dalton’s Carpenter, are among a small group of state legislators most likely to cross party lines — in the color purple, while core Atlanta, including Mainor County, remains blue, an island in the light. Red Sea in rural Georgia.

“I think there’s a core group of us that’s working in the middle and spreading ideas among each other,” Carpenter said. He represents Dalton in the mountains of North Georgia, which has one of the highest Latino populations in the state at 53%.

As Carpenter votes with his fellow Republicans on tax cuts and Second Amendment bills, he has failed to persuade his peers to give state college Tuition grant a number.

“I would say at least a third of the people in our party just don’t like the idea, but I think we just have to have tough talks sometimes,” Carpenter said.

However, grabbing across the aisle can backfire. That’s how it was for Roberts when the mother-of-two wrote about her own abortion for Fox News last year in hopes of bridging the partisan divide. Instead, she said, she got hate mail.

“I would like to go back to a place where we don’t berate each other and don’t argue about extreme issues. I want to get back to people’s work and make sure our children get a good education and that we pass some sensible laws,” she said. “But if the 2024 presidential candidates are what they’re going to be, I think that’s going to be next to impossible because they’re so extreme.”

Meanwhile, talks on both sides about forming a bipartisan problem-solving caucus under the Gold Dome, similar to that in the US House of Representatives, have stalled. That thought is unlikely to resurface in the next session as it will be an election year when lawmakers are more likely to target partisan voters.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s politics time again,” Carpenter said. “It’s going to be a fun thing next year.”