Southern Politicians

One of my favorite memories of the late Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta) dates back to the last night of the 2004 General Assembly session, when the House was about an hour away from adjournment.

Rep. Brian Joyce (R-Lookout Mountain) had announced that night he would be retiring from the General Assembly. Joyce then left the chamber, bringing his legislative career to an even quicker end.

While the House worked its way through the usual blizzard of last-minute bills, one of the reporters in the press gallery nudged me and pointed in the direction of Franklin’s desk. Every time a vote was called on a bill, Franklin would punch in a vote at his desk, then quickly move about 10 feet down the row and vote the machine on Joyce’s vacated desk. Franklin was voting twice on every bill.

I slipped out of the press gallery with my digital camera and made my way to House floor, planning to get a photo of Franklin voting illegally on Joyce’s machine. One of Franklin’s colleagues noticed I was there, then informed Franklin that the media had caught on to his illegal voting. Franklin grinned at me and sat back in his chair, but stayed put for the rest of the evening and didn’t try to cast any more votes in Joyce’s name.

That was Bobby Franklin: a little nutty, very entertaining, and always willing to bend the rules to pick up a vote for whatever strange cause he happened to be supporting.

The reporters in the capitol press corps, alas, won’t have Franklin around to entertain us anymore. He passed away in his sleep last week at the age of 56, with the cause of death “reported” to be a heart attack. I put the word “reported” in quotation marks because Franklin, by far the most far-right member of a very conservative Legislature, was always quick to pick up on whatever conspiracy theory happened to be popular in right-wing circles.

I have no reason to doubt that Franklin really did suffer a heart attack. Even his friends acknowledged that he’d had medical issues in recent years. But it was entirely fitting that in the days after Franklin’s demise, a group of his fellow Christians was circulating an email asserting that the cause of his death “remains a mystery.” It would not surprise me at all if Franklin were to show up at the capitol tomorrow to hold a posthumous news conference demanding an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his own death.

During the 15 years he served in the General Assembly, Franklin sat in the back corner of the House chamber surrounded by a cluster of eccentric lawmakers that reporters jokingly referred to as “the conspiracy theorists.” A typical example of their behavior: one of Franklin’s cohorts stood at his desk in the midst of a raucous House debate over some long-forgotten bill and yelled, “Janet Reno killed David Koresh!”

Those back-corner lawmakers included another member of the Cobb County House delegation, Rep. Mitch Kaye (R-Marietta), who complemented Franklin with his own brand of zaniness. Kaye was constantly trying to goad the hotheaded Democratic House speaker, Tom Murphy, into starting a fistfight, and he very nearly succeeded one night when Murphy accused Kaye of stealing a sandwich from a tray in his office. House aides had to physically restrain Murphy from punching out Kaye. On another occasion, after Kaye continued to needle Murphy about a parliamentary ruling the speaker had made, Murphy declared that he had had a “bellyful” of Kaye and ordered the sergeant-at-arms to eject him from the House chamber.

While Kaye could never quite top Franklin’s unconventional behavior, he came close when the House was debating Gov. Roy Barnes’ education reform bill. Kaye, who was Jewish, complained that he didn’t have enough time to study the latest version of the bill and said, “To vote for this bill would be like buying a pig in a poke, and I can’t do that because I don’t eat pork.”

There was also a Cobb County lawmaker – why do they all come from Cobb County? – named Ed Setzler who supported a bill that would have made it illegal for anyone to implant a microchip in a human being without that person’s consent.

When the bill came up for consideration in a House committee, Setzler produced a witness to speak on the bill’s behalf: a woman who claimed that the Department of Defense had implanted a microchip in her “vaginal-rectum area.”

Setzler sat there with a solemn expression on his face as his star witness testified: “Just imagine, if you will, having a beeper in your rectum or genital area, in the most sensitive area of your body. And your beeper number’s displayed on billboards throughout the city. All done without your permission, with an award available for each caller. Hundreds of people calling you, blowing up your beeper, vibrating it in your flesh, invading your privacy rights to your own body. You’re followed and tortured everywhere you go. You travel all over town trying to get somebody to help you get it off. But instead, you feel the shocking pains from the tip of your spine to the bottom of your feet, this is like a grounding effect.”

The point I’m making is, Franklin was even stranger than the legislators he sat among in the House. As we like to say in the South, he was crazier than a shit-house rat. No one familiar with the workings of the Legislature could ever plausibly argue against the notion that Franklin was the most radically extreme member of the Georgia General Assembly.

He traditionally introduced a raft of bills every session that would make abortion a capital crime and require life sentences for doctors who performed the procedure. He sponsored bills that would have required the state government to pay its bills in gold and silver and would have eliminated the issuance of driver’s licenses on the grounds that the “right to travel” was incorporated in the Magna Carta.

He acquired the nickname “Doctor No” because he voted against nearly every bill and resolution that came up for a floor vote, explaining to those who asked that the measure represented too much of a governmental intrusion into personal matters. We used to joke that Franklin would vote “no” on the morning roll call on the grounds that no government entity had the right to force him to declare whether he was absent or present.

We like to say that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, and that was the case after Franklin’s unexpected passing last week. Even his Democratic colleagues took care to note that he was a man of “principle” who was always consistent in the views he held and the positions he espoused.

“Bobby was never deterred from pursuing the things he believed to be right,” said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta). “He was willing to question authority and challenge paradigms — two things I found to be very instructive.”

Franklin, who was an active member of a Presbyterian Church, was also considered to be a very religious Christian. “Bobby Franklin was a man of deep faith, strong character, and unshakable convictions,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said.

For someone who professed to be such a devoted Christian, Franklin seemed to have a very difficult time actually following the teachings of Christ, especially Jesus’s call for people to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I think his insistence on introducing punitive bills that would imprison doctors for performing legal abortions or would put a woman in jail for having a miscarriage masked a deep and abiding hatred of women (he also sponsored legislation that would change the designation of women in rape cases from “victim” to “accuser”).

Franklin also hated the idea of gays serving in the military, arguing that homosexuality was a “capital offense” and comparing gays to drug dealers. Here’s what he once told a newspaper reporter: “The Bible says it’s a capital offense. You want someone with unrepentant criminal behavior? The church is full of sinners, but we’re told in 1st Corinthians it rattled off the homosexual, the adulterer, the thief, the liar, and such were some of you, but you’ve been washed, you’ve been justified and so forth. It’s not what you were. You’re not punishing a thought. But do you want an unrepentant drug dealer in the military? Same thing.”

Franklin’s extremist views ensured that he would remain on the fringes of his own caucus, but he did go through a period when he held a leadership position. Shortly after the GOP gained majority control of the House, Speaker Glenn Richardson appointed Franklin chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee.

Richardson yanked the chairmanship just a few sessions later after Franklin defied Richardson’s orders during late session floor debate on a bill. On the final day of the 2008 session, Franklin made one of his attempts to pass legislation outlawing abortion by trying to put an anti-abortion amendment on a bill regulating electronic dog collars.

Richardson, who was not amused by Franklin’s antics, told him the abortion amendment was out of order.

“Not gonna give you a vote that you can play a game with,” Richardson said. “This is a bill about collars around a dog, not your bill.”

When Franklin insisted on a vote to overrule Richardson’s ruling, House members voted 152-2 to defeat Franklin’s motion. Richardson soon after stripped Franklin of his chairmanship and consigned him once again to the backbenches of the House.

It’s difficult to think of a nutty cause that Franklin did not get behind.

He introduced legislation to abolish property taxes out of a personal belief that the United States had adopted all 10 points of the Communist Manifesto. “The first plank of the Communist Manifesto is the abolition of private property and if you tax it you’re claiming ownership over it,” he once told a reporter. “We’ve really adopted all 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto in one form or another in this country.”

He claimed that the U.S. Constitution made it illegal for state government to pay its debts and obligations in any form other than gold and silver: “Article 1, Section 10 says in part, ‘no states shall make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts.’ And right now we’re not doing that. So the state of Georgia is breaking the law. All the states are.”

In Franklin’s last legislative session, he introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for public employees in Georgia to bargain collectively, a measure that Franklin said was inspired by the union-busting efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill actually got a hearing in committee but was not brought up for a vote after the committee chairman pointed out to Franklin that there was already a state law prohibiting collective bargaining by public employees.

And so it went. With Franklin’s passing, there is no question that the Georgia House of Representatives will be a less entertaining political body. But at the same time, it will be a little bit saner.

This article first appeared in Tom Crawford’s Georgia Report.

Tom Crawford

Tom Crawford

A former reporter for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service covering state government in Georgia.