Sam Williams will be forever known as the man who insisted – for the good of the public – that two Georgia governors eat their broccoli.
Both chief executives, one Democrat and one Republican, duly raised their forks and swallowed. In each case, the consequences weren’t pretty.
Which is why the clout of business hasn’t diminished in the state Capitol, but it has shifted – away from the Metro Atlanta Chamber that Williams has headed for 17 years. Williams announced his pending retirement this week.
In political terms, Williams’ tenure will be marked by two events.
In 2001, to avoid a threatened economic boycott and give Atlanta a chance to land the NCAA Final Four basketball tourney, Gov. Roy Barnes pulled down Georgia’s segregation-era state flag and its Confederate battle emblem – shattering the fragile black-white alliance that had kept Georgia Democrats in power.
Barnes lost his 2002 re-election bid, and Democrats were sent into an exile that has yet to end.
Barnes was succeeded by Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor. After much persuasion, Perdue signed onto a plan to address Georgia’s woefully underfunded transportation system. The solution was a statewide referendum, conducted during a tea party-driven Republican primary, calling for a penny sales tax increase.
Last July, the sales tax passed in three districts in rural Georgia, but failed miserably in metro Atlanta, where it was needed most. Already it has become a weapon against any GOP lawmaker who voted to put it on the ballot.
In each instance, there were other actors and other factors, but Williams’ was the voice that insisted, and sometimes none too politely.
Look, a state-sponsored symbol of segregation had no business hanging in schools and courtrooms. And GOP resistance to any and all tax increases, even for roads, bridges and public transportation that could spark economic development, is a legitimate source of worry.
But Williams, insiders at the Capitol will tell you, often seemed tone-deaf – or indifferent — to the political realities that afflict the people who rule the Capitol, whether Republican or Democrat.
“This chamber has always taken on things that are tough, that are not easy,” Williams said this week in an interview on WABE (90.1FM). “Changing the Georgia flag was not easy, by any means. Saving Grady Hospital was not easy. Are we going to win everything we do? No, we’re not going to.”
But Williams said that, from the Civil Rights era through the landing of the 1996 Olympics, metro Atlanta’s business leadership has tackled “the big things.”
Yet the Atlanta style of governance – finding the sweet spot where business, political and moral interests all intersect — relies on a bond of trust between business and political leaders. Which has gone missing in the Republican era.
Williams’ relationship with the state Capitol reached a nadir in 2011. Heavily invested in Atlanta school board races, and then in school superintendent Beverly Hall, the Metro Chamber resisted a critical report by a task force appointed by Perdue, suggesting that academic gains were the result of widespread cheating. An aide to Williams authored a plan to “finesse” the governor’s concerns.
It is significant that Carol Tome, Home Depot’s chief financial officer and a former chair of the Metro Chamber, said this week her organization will likely hire someone who already has an established relationship with state and local leaders. I.e., Republicans.
“The chamber’s success will be propelled or inhibited by its capacity to understand politics, and do so with a smile,” a Capitol denizen said this week.
(Attorney General Sam Olens, quickly mentioned as a possible successor to Williams, just as quickly removed himself from contention. “I have already started campaigning for re-election,” he said in an e-mail.)
One example to follow may be the Georgia Chamber of Commerce – which has expanded its influence in the Capitol as metro Atlanta’s business arm has floundered.
Three years ago, the statewide chamber installed Chris Clark, a reliable Republican and former Perdue administrator, as its president and CEO.
The Georgia Chamber has added staffing – in particular, a public policy arm that researches major issues. Something that, in the past, had been left to the Metro Chamber. It has also begun issuing “scorecards” on legislators – as a stick to keep lawmakers in line on issues of importance.
It has also has established a political action committee, to reward well-behaved lawmakers with campaign contributions.
A carrot, you might say, to make those mouthfuls of broccoli go down a little easier.