Alfred Jackson “Jay” Powell passed away last week at the too-young age of 67. He was perhaps one of the most powerful people in Georgia that you may never have heard of.
Powell was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2008 representing his home county of Mitchell along with portions of Decatur and Colquitt counties. He served as Mayor of Camilla Georgia for the decade prior to his service in the House.
Powell collapsed and died at a leadership retreat of House members who were meeting to prepare for the upcoming session of the Georgia legislature. He served as the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, which is the committee all legislation must pass before reaching the floor for a final vote in the Georgia House.
It is rare that legislation will pass a committee over the objection of a Chairman. As such, the Rules Chairman of the House and Senate serve as gatekeepers on the flow of bills on their way to become law.
It’s a position of great responsibility that is rarely the subject of headlines and usually only followed closely by the true insiders of the political sausage-making process. Those that do follow, however, understand that a smile from Powell meant things were going to be OK for a bill, whereas a scowl or a thumbs down meant trouble at a minimum, and a terminal roadblock if concerns could not be assuaged.
Prior to his ascension to Rules Chairman, Powell served as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. There, he oversaw Georgia’s tax policy for the House. His committee was responsible for setting tax rates that raised the revenue required to pay our teachers, public safety officers, and public health programs while maintaining Georgia’s “number one state to do business” ranking.
It was always a difficult balancing act, which required maximum attention to detail. Powell excelled at the details, both on spreadsheets, legal documents, and personal relationships.
He was a champion for rural Georgia. He, along with House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, was a founding co-Chairman of the House Rural Development Council. The committee traveled the state for two years studying complex issues facing rural Georgians and proposing many initiatives that were incorporated into legislation that became law.
He was a confidant of Speaker David Ralston who said on his passing, “Jay Powell reflected the best of the Republican Party’s traditions. At the same time, he enjoyed an unrivaled respect and admiration from members of the minority party.”
And it is the words of praise regarding Powell’s substance that demonstrate the power and work of someone who prioritized results over headlines. Atlanta Democratic Representative Mary Margaret Oliver, who attended church with Powell when he was in Atlanta, said in part “Jay and I sat together on both the Judiciary and Governmental Affairs Committees for years and worked on many issues through final drafts and negotiations. He was usually the smartest and hardest working legislator in the room, but also the one I could trust the most.”
Too much political emphasis today is given to the bomb-throwers and backbenchers who give good headlines and generate media clicks. Not enough is given to those who are responsible for balancing budgets, setting unwanted but necessary tax rates, and knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to legislation as it works through the process. They are the ones who ultimately must bear the consequences of tough decisions.
To be a mayor is to be able to balance a budget while keeping the police force on patrol and keeping the potholes filled. To be a legislator is to represent the concerns of the folks back home while in Atlanta. And to be a committee chairman is to take responsibility for any issue before the legislature as the definitive subject matter expert to the other citizen legislators on the issue before the committee.
Jay Powell did all of that over two decades of public service. He did most of it quietly but deliberately, calling little attention to himself along the way. While you may not have heard of him, his imprint on Georgia is one that has touched us all.
Charlie Harper, a Fayette County native, is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the executive director of PolicyBEST, an Atlanta-based pro-business advocacy group.