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Rynders a champion for rural Georgia

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- During her recent unsuccessful campaign to unseat incumbent Democratic state House District 150 Rep. Winfred Dukes, first-time candidate Karen Kemp paid Republican House District 152 Rep. Ed Rynders the ultimate compliment.

"Ed Rynders is the hardest-working legislator in Southwest Georgia," Kemp said. "And one of the reasons I'm running for this office is he needs help in Atlanta."

With an ominous cloud -- at least for South Georgia -- hanging over the looming redistricting process, a process in which the southern portion of the state is expected to lose as many as six House and two Senate seats to the booming north and metro Atlanta, Kemp's words will no doubt prove to be more than mere campaign rhetoric.

As the lone Republican among the area's local delegation -- at least prior to the November defections of longtime Democrats Gerald Greene of Cuthbert and Bob Hanner of Parrott -- Rynders is positioned to have perhaps the greatest impact on the redistricting process, as well as other legislation, when the General Assembly convenes for 2011. In a Republican-controlled government, Rynders' four terms in office have him positioned as one of rural Georgia's most influential champions.

"One of the things I've seen during the years I've been in Atlanta is a willingness by our local delegation to work together on issues that are important to our region," Rynders said. "And I think legislators from rural Georgia have done a very good job of staying together on the regional issues that matter, things like water and transportation.

"Obviously, if you look at fewer members (of the Legislature) from Southwest Georgia, that's going to mean more of a workload for everyone. But I believe seniority has allowed (many rural legislators) to build stronger relationships in Atlanta, and that's helped them become even more adept at certain legislative matters. Put it this way: There are proportionately more (committee) chairmanships among rural Georgia legislators than there are from those in metro Atlanta."

Rynders, who enters his ninth year in the General Assembly as chairman of the House's Intragovernmental Coordinating Committee (which oversees local legislation), vice chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee and as a member of the influential Transportation and Appropriations committees, was always the behind-the-scenes political junkie whose own political asperations were secondary to those of others he supported. That changed in 2002 when longtime Dougherty County Legislator Doug Everett decided he'd had enough of life under the Gold Dome.

"Gary Smith was chairman of the Dougherty County Republican Party, and someone asked him who would be a good candidate to replace Doug," Rynders said. "Gary floated three names, and one of them was mine. I was actually surprised, but it got me to thinking.

"There were a couple of things I had to consider. If I ran, I had to quit my job (as a news reporter with the local Fox TV affiliate). And I knew if I did this job, I was going to do it right. And if you do it right, it's not a part-time job."

A few days before the qualifying period ended, Rynders' school teacher wife Jane provided the motivation that pushed him over the edge.

"Jane and I were taking a walk, and she knew this decision was on my mind," Rynders said. "She knew I was having a difficult time with it, but she turned to me and said, 'Ed, if you don't do this, you're going to wonder what if the rest of your life.' That was the catalyst."

Rynders became something of a surprise candidate, but those who knew him best knew he was no stranger to the political process. The Air Force brat, who has spent most of his life since he was 8 years old in Albany and Lee County, had served as chairman of the Lee County Republican Party and as vice chair of the Lee Elections Board. And he'd used his interest in political science -- which he studied at the University of Georgia -- to help other candidates gain office.

"I've always loved the strategy, the messaging of politics," he said. "I just enjoy the process. It fits into my belief that our government is too big and inefficient."

Rynders grew up a fighter and a worker, one of those people capable of recognizing an opportunity and having the foresight to seize one when it came along. He worked in sales before talking his way into a job in radio, which turned into the wildly popular local "Front Page" program that took a no-holds-barred approach to political commentary.

From that show, Rynders was recruited to do TV commentary for Albany's WFXL, and he turned that gig into a regular position as a news personality. In the battle for viewers with well-established local NBC affiliate WALB, Rynders was the only non-WALB on-air personality to ever receive The Albany Herald's Readers Choice Award as top newscaster in the region.

Rynders also utilized his business acumen to run family personal health care facilities and establish himself as a successful real estate developer.

He's approached each new challenge with a bulldog ferocity that resonates with those who know him, a trait that became vital during his first run for the House. Before he held off challengers Darrel Ealum, Craig Mathis and Ida Chambers, Rynders was forced to endure a pair of lawsuits and the broken promise of a challenger who sought his help and then endorsed his opponent in a runoff.

"It got ugly," Rynders offers as an understatement about the race that propelled him into the state House.

He outpolled runner-up Ealum by 13 votes in a three-person race to win the Republican primary, overcoming along the way an unsuccessful slander lawsuit based on Rynders' claim that his opponent did not actually live in the district. While some said his strategy was not resonating with voters, Rynders won the runoff with around 65 percent of the vote.

He then beat Democrat Mathis, who brought a legal challenge over Rynders' use of the Georgia seal in a campaign ad, in the general election.

"He (Mathis) filed charges against me and all the people on my election committee, who had to show up in court on the day of the hearing," Rynders said. "The judge threw the case out -- actually, I didn't know we couldn't use the seal -- but all of the people on my campaign committee, some really hard-working people who had to leave their jobs and come to court, got really motivated."

Rynders said his time in Atlanta has been "humbling."

"I don't know that there's another job that prepares you for (the Legislature)," he said. "I've known a lot of people who have gone into government thinking they would change the world who have been humbled in a hurry.

"I don't think a lot of people realize how big and broad this process is. It's always changing, and anyone who wants to do it well must constantly learn."

Heading into the 2011 session, Rynders said the overriding issues in Georgia have long been set in stone: the budget, South Georgia's approach to redistricting, education and transportation.

"There will be an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion shortfall that we'll have to address," he said. "A big chunk of that is because we accepted stimulus money, but the good news is we didn't take as much as a lot of other states did. What a lot of people don't seem to understand is that the stimulus money has to be paid back.

"I think what you'll see this year is an attempt to make additional cuts with the emphasis to avoid cutting education, health and public safety. The biggest problem is, everyone wants to cut something other than theirs, and they don't mind raising everyone else's taxes."

Threatened cuts in the state's lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program have stirred up education interests in Georgia. Among the proposals for adjusting the program are requiring increases in qualifying students' grade-point average, capping the percentage of costs students may qualify for, income-based qualification and disqualifying remedial students.

"HOPE will survive in some form," Rynders said. "All the proposals (for cuts) concern me because they don't get to the heart of the problem, which is that every time tuition goes up, it puts HOPE more at risk. Unfortunately, the HOPE scholarship has become a financial supplement to institutions of higher learning.

"I'm one of those interested in tying tuition increases to the rate of inflation. For instance, tuition in Georgia institutions went up 15 percent last year. It's hard to believe most people can afford such an increase in hard economic times."

On an issue that has been a part of the local political landscape for years -- consolidation of the Dougherty County and Albany governments -- Rynders said he expects that issue to eventually be placed in the hands of voters.

"I didn't know Sen. (Freddie Powell) Sims was going to introduce the issue," Rynders said of the District 12 senator's recent revelation that she planned to introduce consolidation legislation in the Senate during the session. "This is an issue that has hung over Albany and Dougherty County for decades. I simply want the people to have an opportunity to vote on how they are governed so we can take the issue off the table.

"After attending recent city and county (commission) meetings, I'm optimistic they want the people to vote, too."

As for the elephant in the room that is redistricting, Rynders said the numbers game does not look good for the southern portion of the state. His latest figures indicate as many as 8,500 people will have to be added to each of the 180 house districts, increasing the population in each from around 45,000 to 53,500.

With an 18 percent population growth in the state, most in and around metro Atlanta, southern influence will decrease in proportion to its rather tepid growth during the past 10 years.

"With the loss of seats, the leadership shift to north Georgia will be significant," Rynders said. "And while it is human nature to want to 'take care of your own,' there's no doubt in my mind that (north Georgia-based) leadership realizes it can't survive politically if it takes care only of its own. I know that (House) Speaker (David) Ralston is aware of and committed to the needs of South Georgia.

"I also have no doubts that the redistricting process will be fair, reasonable and meet legal requirements."

Rynders said that process will most likely include a special called summer session after census data are released in early spring.