January will now mark Tom Price’s debut as one of Washington’s premier dealmakers.
Situated between a President Donald Trump and an unbridled, Republican-controlled Congress, the new secretary of health and human services soon will be the pivot point around which your access to a physician spins.
We have witnessed a debut of Price as dealmaker before — on a smaller stage, but in somewhat similar circumstances.
The year was 2003. The Democratic re-election bid of Gov. Roy Barnes had collapsed, done in by — among other things — his decision to haul down the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem.
Suddenly, Sonny Perdue was the first Republican governor in modern Georgia history. With the aid of a few party-switchers, the state Senate quickly fell under GOP control — and for the first time in his six-year tenure, a Republican orthopedic surgeon from Roswell was in a position of power.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Price found himself immediately saddled with two of the new Republican governor’s top priorities: passage of a tobacco tax to heal a substantial hole in the budget, and a statewide referendum on the explosive issue of whether to return the state’s 1956 flag, the vestige of a bitter fight over segregation, to the dome of the state Capitol.
The latter was a promise Perdue had made to “flaggers” who had dogged Barnes throughout his campaign, waving Confederate banners at nearly every event.
One Perdue priority would be sacrificed to the other, in a transaction led by two men headed — with the help of this very deal — for bigger things. Price’s partner would be a Democrat, a 33-year-old state senator named Kasim Reed.
“You’ve got to open the conversation by saying, ‘This won’t get you beat.’ Because he was very focused on the future,” said Reed, now about to enter the last of his eight years as mayor of Atlanta. “If you wanted to have a productive meeting with (Price) — which is how we got where we got to the compromise — you had to lay out a path that was politically survivable. Once you got that path, you could do good things together.”
As Senate president pro tem, Eric Johnson of Savannah, another Republican, was the ranking leader of the chamber. Johnson had been a vocal opponent of Barnes’ 2001 decision to depose the ’56 flag. In a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah, Johnson had famously wrapped himself in the discarded banner.
But Price, a Michigan native, was less enamored of Confederate symbolism — as were other non-native Republicans in the chamber, including Senate Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour of Gwinnett County. Who sat right behind the future mayor of Atlanta.
Reed described Perdue’s flag referendum as the “alien ship” — think “Independence Day,” the movie — that provoked common outrage, though not necessarily for the same reason.
African-American Democrats in the Senate considered yet another debate over the Confederate battle emblem to be racially offensive. Yet the caucus still had many white, rural senators for whom it was a source of cultural pride.
The unifying thought that became the foundation for compromise — among black and white, Democrat and Republican — was the acknowledgement that another extended debate over Confederate symbolism would damage the state’s economy. “People had a similar feeling about our reputation for being business-friendly. And that was getting ready to be thrown aside,” Reed said.
The flag bill proposed by Perdue had two elements: A new flag design, based on the stars-and-bars flag that had been adopted immediately after the Civil War, would temporarily replace a blue banner raised by Barnes in 2001. Then there was the referendum — a statewide popular vote on whether to return to the ’56 flag.
The bill passed the House and reached the Senate floor on the penultimate day of the 2003 session. In a remarkable speech, Reed addressed white rural senators and urged them to make a minor change in the legislation that would return it to the other chamber and buy some time.
With Republican help, it worked. In the House, the flag bill was gutted on its return visit — the referendum would be held, but the ’56 flag was removed as a choice. The new Perdue flag would go up immediately. (It’s still there today.)
But a Senate vote on the defused flag bill was still required. This is where the deal kicked in. Republicans had kept much of their caucus together by adding an income tax break for seniors, but they were still short of votes needed for Perdue’s tobacco tax increase.
Reed provided five votes — after the flag deal was consummated on the Senate floor. (Though the senator from Atlanta didn’t vote for the tax increase himself. He had ambitions that wouldn’t let him.)
The tobacco tax passed.
Reed was able to kill the return of the ’56 state flag. The new governor got most of what he wanted and was never too upset at being unable to fulfill his campaign promise to flaggers. He would scrawl “Sonny tried” on the signs held by protesters that read, “Sonny lied.”
What did Tom Price get? It was kept secret at the time, but Price demanded that Democratic state lawmakers representing Fulton County end their opposition to the creation of the city of Sandy Springs. They agreed.
This was confirmed by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who was chairwoman of the Senate committee that handled local governmental affairs, and Johnson, who was Senate president pro tem.
The Sandy Springs bill wouldn’t pass in 2003, but it in 2005. By then, depending on a strong turnout in Fulton County, Price had made his successful his run for Congress — against two other state senators who hailed from Cobb County.
“The deal was we would open the door for just the one city and then shut it again,” Johnson said. It didn’t exactly work out that way.
I asked the mayor of Atlanta what advice he might have for Democratic colleagues in Washington who now will be trying to cut their own deals with Price in an attempt to salvage parts of Obamacare.
“He’s a serious man,” Reed said. “Democrats negotiating with him need to understand that he’s a serious person who will study 20 hours a day, who will know the rules, who will know his membership, who is a strong vote-counter.
“Those are all things that I would like to know about people that I meet with on matters of consequence,” the mayor said.
Let the bartering begin.