Calvin Smyre begins 39th year as 'dean' of Georgia Legislature

Calvin Smyre remembers the moment he became interested in politics. He was a student government leader at Fort Valley State University when he went to Sandersville, Ga., to hear activist Hosea Williams speak at the height of the civil rights movement.

After the talk, Smyre introduced himself to Williams, a central figure in the fight for racial equality.

“I will never forget what he told me — ‘Never look at politics through a knothole,’” Smyre said. “It is like when you are looking at a baseball game through a knothole. You can’t see all the players or what the manager is doing. You need to look at politics from the inside and seek public office.”

More than four decades later, Smyre has lived out Williams’ advice. When the Georgia General Assembly starts work Monday, Smyre will begin his 39th consecutive year in the state house. None of the 236 legislators in the house or senate have served longer without a break in service.

“He’s the dean,” said Smyre’s longtime friend and political ally U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop. “One has to be very agile and very flexible in order to weather all of the challenges that come over all of those years. And Calvin has done it well.”

During that time, Smyre has been one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers with a reach far beyond his district that includes much of south Columbus and midtown. During the last eight years of Republican control of the house, Smyre has been in the legislative minority. Still, he has found a way to remain relevant.

Through his work with the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and his relentless networking, Smyre has an influence that extends deep into Washington, D.C., and national politics.

Dublin newspaper publisher DuBose Porter served with Smyre for many years and can describe him in one word — “glue.”

“Calvin has always been the glue that connected things to make things work,” Porter said. “Back in the 1980s, it was his work on education. He played an important role in much of Zell Miller’s and Roy Barnes’ legislative agendas.”

Smyre has racked up an impressive list of firsts over his 19 terms. He was the first black man to serve as a governor’s house floor leader and the first black elected official to be appointed to the Democratic National Committee, as well as the first to chair the state Democratic Party, the house Democratic caucus and the influential house Rules Committee.

In the days leading up to the legislative session, Smyre has found himself looking back more than normal, especially after finding a 1975 composite photo of the 180 members of the house.

“I started looking at that,” Smyre said, “and it hit me that I was the only one left.”

Republican Speaker of the House David Ralston, who has watched Smyre operate for 16 General Assembly sessions, puts it this way: “The Calvin Smyres of the world are getting fewer and fewer.”

Smyre was elected to the General Assembly in 1974 and wanted to jump into the process quickly. Before the 1975 session started, Smyre went to Atlanta to meet new House Speaker Tom Murphy. The rookie legislator was introduced to the speaker by another Columbus lawmaker, Judge Albert Thompson.

“It was a cordial conversation,” Smyre remembers. “During it, I told him I would like to be on the Appropriations Committee. He laughed and said, ‘We don’t allow freshmen on that one.’ Then I asked if I could be on the Ways and Means Committee. He chuckled again.”

In four years, Smyre was on the Ways and Means Committee. It took him eight years to get on the Appropriations Committee.

“Tom Murphy really liked Calvin,” said former Rep. Tom Buck, who represented Columbus for 38 years before retiring in 2004. “He was able to get some important committee assignments.”

Smyre eventually became chairman of the Rules Committee.

On the surface, Murphy and Smyre did not appear to have a lot in common.

“He was a rural Southern legislator and I was an urban African-American legislator,” Smyre said. “But we found we had a lot in common. The speaker loved baseball, and so did I. We were both big Braves fans.”

The relationship with Murphy served Smyre well, said Bishop, who served in the General Assembly alongside Smyre in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Speaker Murphy kept him close and made him a trusted part of his team,” Bishop said. “And this meant upper mobility and influence. Murphy made a lot of politicians. Joe Frank Harris left the house to become governor.”

That was when Smyre’s star rose. During Harris’ eight years as governor, Smyre became the house floor leader, helping push the governor’s legislative agenda. It was during this time, between 1983 and 1991, that Smyre gained input over the state budget. He was among a handful of legislators, which also included Buck, that shaped the state budget.

Smyre gained influence, but he was also making sure he completely understood the budget process.

“I used to tell people if you could get your hand on the budget knife, the issues would come to you,” Smyre said.

Columbus benefitted from Smyre and Buck being players in the budget.

“People used to joke the budget leaned toward Columbus,” Smyre said.

It wasn’t a joke, according to Porter.

“It did lean toward Columbus,” he said. “And Columbus deserved it. Just look around Columbus — the convention center, the university, the technical college, the performing arts center and all of the infrastructure would not have happened without the respect those guys had. And Calvin was a big part of that.”

Buck puts it in more simple terms.

“Columbus is a better place today because of Calvin and his long service in the state house,” Buck said.

Smyre was hired as a manager trainee by Columbus Bank & Trust two years after he was elected to the General Assembly, and Synovus President Jim Blanchard played an important role in Smyre’s success.

“Calvin had the best job in the General Assembly,” said Sen. David Lucus said, a Macon Democrat who came into the house the same year as Smyre. “Working for Jim Blanchard gave him stability. And his work ethic at the bank prepared him well. Jim Blanchard was well known in Atlanta and he was able to help Calvin.”

Smyre agrees. “It is hard for me to describe the relationship of trust and admiration we have for each other,” Smyre said of Blanchard. “I reported directly to Jimmy for maybe 20 years.”

In 2005, the Republicans seized control of the house. Powerful Democrats like Smyre were now on the outside looking in.

“He handled it with grace,” Porter said.

Smyre’s office was moved from the Capitol to the Coverdale Legislative Office Building across Mitchell Street.

“The Republicans just packed up his office and stuck it in a hallway in the LOB,” Porter remembers. “It was a terrible way to be treated. But he smoothed it over. He had every reason to raise Cain, but he took the high road. I remember him saying, ‘They just don’t know any better.’”

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat with 20 years in the house, has watched Smyre when he had the power and when was relegated to the minority.

“Calvin is a Georgia institution,” Hugley said. “At some point, you have to be content with your circumstance. He is a person who understands that because he understands politics. A true statesman understands you won’t always be on the top of the mountain and you won’t always be in the valley.”

Speaker Ralston believes Smyre has grown into a different role over the last eight years.

“I think he is a better leader now,” Ralston said. “Calvin has been a rock for me. We don’t always agree on the issues, but in the terms of process and making progress in the house, he is invaluable.”

While Smyre’s influence in the state house has slipped, he has continued to be a presence in Washington through his leadership role in the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Smyre has been president of the organization and is involved in meetings with key leaders, including President Obama. He was in a group that met at the White House with Obama last month to discuss budget issues.

“He is always at the center of things — that is quintessential Calvin,” Bishop said.

Smyre has been a longtime political ally of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Porter tells two stories to illustrate Smyre’s circle of influence.

“When President Obama was running his first campaign, he came to a school in Cobb County,” Porter said. “He comes into the room and there are a bunch of us standing around. Obama walked straight over to Calvin, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello, Calvin. How are things in Georgia?’”

The other example came during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

“We are driving down the road, and his phone rings,” Porter said. “It was Hillary. Some pretty powerful folks have his cell phone number.”

Smyre enjoys moving in Washington circles.

“But I know who I am and I know who sent me,” Smyre said. “All of the things I have been able to do, I have been able to do it because the people of Columbus have allowed me to do it.”

Smyre won’t say if this will his final term, but he admits he has begun thinking about the exit.

“I have started to have that conversation with myself,” he said. “This could be my last term. As much as I love it, at some point I am going to have to make that decision. I think I am at that juncture.”

The record for service in the General Assembly is 54 years by Soperton legislator Hugh Gillis, who recently died. Asked if he was interested in breaking Gillis’ record, the 65-year-old Smyre laughed.

“That record is safe,” he said.