Ga. Members Watch and Wait for Flag Vote

Posted May 2, 2003 at 5:31pm

Rep. Mac Collins (R) doesn’t have a Georgia flag outside of his office. He took it down in January — making him likely the only Member of Congress not displaying a state banner.

Although Collins’ decision represents an extreme, it’s indicative of the situation Peach State lawmakers find themselves in as their state grapples with its third official state flag in as many years.

In 2001, then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D) replaced the Confederate battle flag — perceived by many as a symbol of racial hatred — with a blue banner featuring the state seal. Gov. Sonny Purdue (R) is expected to sign a bill this week making yet another flag the temporary banner of the state and putting the issue to the voters in next March.

Only two are on the ballot and neither includes the old Confederate emblem: the blue flag, which many simply refer to as the “Barnes flag,” and the new banner, which closely resembles the state flag prior to the adoption of the controversial “stars and bars” in 1956.

The question for Georgia lawmakers remains which flag to display in the meantime. All three? The two on the ballot? Only the official state flag of Georgia at the moment?

Or, as in Collins’ case, none.

Collins’ objection lies with the blue banner itself, which has five smaller flags depicted across the bottom, including former state flags of Georgia and the U.S. flag.

He doesn’t think the Star-Spangled Banner belongs there.

“It diminishes the flag,” Collins said, referring to the Stars and Stripes.

For that reason, he has never displayed the blue flag. And up until the beginning of the 108th Congress, he kept the old flag up outside of his office.

“I took the 1956 flag down at the first of the year because of the controversy it was creating,” Collins said.

Indeed, a few offices, including that of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), made inquiries as to why the old flag was still up.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) also kept the 1956 flag up until the beginning of this Congress. His office said it had a difficult time getting a new flag of an appropriate size from the state.

“We kept it up for a long time because the one they sent us was too long,” Kingston spokeswoman Robin Ridgely said. “Jack’s point was the way it was done in the dead of night,” referring to Barnes’ handling of the controversy.

Collins characterized it in much the same way, calling the governor’s actions “clandestine” and “inappropriate.”

As for what he plans to do now, Kingston said he might “put all three flags up and put a little chart under it or a ballot box and let visitors take their pick.” He wouldn’t discourage non-Georgians from having a say, “since they seem to have as much of an opinion on it as any native.”

Collins said he will display the new flag if and when it becomes law — the most common response from members of the Georgia delegation.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D) “will display the new state flag when it becomes the official state flag,” his spokesman said.

“We’re going to fly the state flag of Georgia,” a spokeswoman for Rep. Denise Majette (D) said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) plans to do the same. “We will, as we have always done, fly whatever the legal state flag of Georgia is,” said a spokeswoman.

Sen. Zell Miller’s (D) spokeswoman demonstrated the rhetorical flourishes the state’s flag merry-go-round has necessitated at times: “Right now we have the current one that was passed under Governor Barnes. If Governor Purdue signs the new state flag into law, we will fly that one. And if the voters decide they want another new state flag, we will fly that one. We will fly whatever the legal state flag of the moment is,” she said.

The rest of the Georgia delegation — including Reps. Lewis, John Linder (R), Johnny Isakson (R), Max Burns (R), Jim Marshall (D), David Scott (D), Phil Gingrey (R), Nathan Deal (R) and Charlie Norwood (R) — indicated they would do the same.

But within that group there’s considerable differences in enthusiasm. Gingrey’s office hopes to be the “first Congressional office to have the new flag up here,” his spokesman said.

Some offices even joked that they should keep all the flags in storage, just in case.

But one Georgia delegation staffer wished only for it to be over.

“It’s really tricky. I will be happy when it goes away.”

But the aide also found much to celebrate in the courageousness of several state lawmakers in not putting the ’56 flag on the ballot.

“I have been heartened by the fact that even though few people come out and say it publicly, a lot of Republicans and white Democrats put their careers on the line in the Legislature. The leadership of the state doesn’t want to go back to the ’56 flag,” the aide said.

The aide’s comments, however, highlight the near absence of positions taken by Members of Congress on the issue. No lawmaker or spokesman offered a stance on the controversy or the upcoming balloting.

That’s for good reason. Saying anything almost certainly would alienate a portion of their constituencies. And there’s a trail of defeated Southern governors to prove it: South Carolina’s David Beasley (R) and Jim Hodges (D), and Georgia’s own Barnes.

Even Scott, who has strong personal feelings about the Confederate banner, didn’t comment directly on the referendum or the controversy in general.

“The fundamental issue that I have to the objection of this flag business is the act of changing the flag in ’56 … in support of a segregated system,” a move that upset many Confederate soldiers at the time, he said last week. “I always felt that battle flag represented the soldiers who gave their lives,” whether you agree with the cause or not, he added, and making it the state flag of Georgia “soiled the memory of those soldiers.”

In an interview earlier this year, the freshman lawmaker said during his campaign he knocked, albeit with reservation, at houses that had Confederate battle flags in the yard.

“And when I left there was a David Scott yard sign where that Confederate flag had been,” Scott said.

Weeks later he went back to some of those houses and found the battle flags hadn’t been put back up and the David Scott yards signs were still in the yard.

When asked last week to express his feelings about the flag issue, he quoted the Apostle Paul: “I count not that I comprehend or understand anything at all but this one thing I do comprehend. And that is those things in the past we must put behind us as we reach out to those things before us as we press on to the mark of a higher, better calling.”

Amy Keller contributed to this report.