It’s Hard To Find Heroes -- Sen. Jeff Chapman & this session's Jekyll Island legislation.
It would be hard to find any real heroes in Georgia politics these days. I’m talking about the kind of political figures who have the guts to stand up to the powerful interests and do something that is morally right, something that truly benefits the people. . . . If you try to do something courageous in politics in this state, you’ll just get your head handed to you.
If there was any heroic figure in the legislative session that just adjourned, it would be Jeff Chapman, a gangly, balding, second-term senator from Brunswick. He stood up to a group of powerful, wealthy business interests over the fate of Jekyll Island. . . . Some of the barrier island’s hotel and recreational facilities have been looking a little seedy lately, and most would agree that there is a need to revitalize these areas.
The battle for Jekyll, however, is really over the south end of the island, which is still under-developed and provides a nesting spot for sea turtles. Developers want to take the south end and build things like a resort hotel that would cater to the state’s more affluent citizens. The vehicle for new development at Jekyll was the bill HB 214, which passed the House without much trouble and appeared headed for victory in the Senate as well.
Southeast Land Co. retained an army of well-connected lobbyists like Joe Tanner, the former natural resources commissioner, and former lawmakers Arthur "Skin" Edge and Boyd Pettit to move the bill forward. During one of the committee hearings on HB 214, Tanner confided he was also monitoring the legislation on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue. Southeast Land Co. is a business venture of Mercer Reynolds, who developed the Reynolds Plantation resort area in Greene County and is one of the most influential figures in GOP politics today. Reynolds was a top fundraiser for George W. Bush and once told a reporter that he had flown on Air Force One “more times than I can count.” He was formerly Bush’s ambassador to Switzerland.
If you’re an ambitious Republican in the General Assembly, your natural instinct would be to support these party stalwarts in their development efforts. Chapman took the opposite path. He worked with environmental lobbyists as well as with Democratic lawmakers who wanted to save Jekyll and came within one vote in committee of adding an environmental protection amendment to HB 214.
“The south end of Jekyll is something we shouldn’t even be negotiating,” Chapman said when he presented his amendment during floor debate. His argument carried the day: the amendment to prohibit development passed by more than a two-to-one margin. The last hurdle was getting the House to agree with Chapman’s changes to the bill. HB 214 went to a conference committee that is usually limited to three senators and three representatives. In these negotiating sessions, however, the developers’ lobbyists also sat in as the fate of the bill was determined. Chapman refused to give in, and by the time the Legislature adjourned on Friday night, the House and Senate had agreed to a Jekyll bill that will keep developers away from the south end. . . . Chapman emerged as perhaps the only real hero of this legislative session. He will probably pay a price for doing so. Many of his Republicans colleagues despise him for daring to oppose the developers, and Perdue was making snide remarks about Chapman as the last day of the legislative session neared an end. But Chapman never gave in to the big money interests. If Jekyll Island still has sea turtles nesting on its south end 10 or 20 years from now, and you’re able to take the family there and stay at a reasonably priced hotel, you’ll be able to thank Jeff Chapman.