Why I quit the Georgia Senate
James P. Wesberry, Jr., once called “the most controversial politician since Gene Talmadge,”at 32 has decided he must leave Georgia politics to those who can afford
James P. Wesberry Jr.
As told to John Askins
Editor's Note: James P. Wesberry
Jr. of Atlanta resigned from the Georgia Senate to take a job in Lima, Peru, explaining he could no longer
afford the financial expense of being a public servant.
Sen. Wesberry's outspoken
views on the high cost of politics to the families involved represented his own opinions, and do not necessarily reflect those
of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
(This article appeared in The Atlanta Journal
and Constitution Magazine of Sunday, April 30, 1967. It was reprinted in Future Magazine published by the United States Jaycees
later that year).
y decision was not a sudden one. It was
one I'd been facing, trying to face, for three years. It wasn't long after I was elected to the 37th District before
I began to realize that politics is an expensive business and the poor man who wants to remain honest may not have the opportunity
to stay in politics for very long.
My political campaigns cost me enough to
send all three of my children through college twice, as I said in my statement of resignation. My net worth has decreased
by $12,750 since I entered public office in 1962. I estimate that my Senate career has cost me $15,000 per year in lost potential
income and out-of-pocket expenses.
As a certified public accountant, I can
earn in excess of $20,000 a year. As a state senator, I just can't do it; I can't make that kind of money-even through I'm
still a CPA. The problem of trying to do two jobs results in not being able to do either one of them very well.
You have three kinds of expenses. The first
and most obvious is the cost of getting elected. Theoretically a good politician should be able to raise enough from friends
and political supporters to cover his campaign. As a matter of actuality, I have never talked to a politician who was able
to raise enough that way. All the members of the Fulton County delegation and everyone else I've met had to spend money out of their personal
The most obnoxious part of politics for
me, the part I literally despise, is that one has to humble himself before his friends and even before strangers, asking them
to support him financially. You may not take a whole lot of money - I've never received any large contributions- but if someone
gives you fifty dollars, you feel indebted to him. Later on, when he's got a bill he's interested in, he'll come see you:
You're put in a compromising situation, an embarrassing position.
Nonetheless, you have to get the money from
somewhere. It's not easy, either, especially the first time, because you're an unknown. And the average citizens even those
who encourage you to run, don't care enough about government to finance a candidate. I remember that I had announced for my
first campaign coming back to me of the people who had urged me to run and saying, "All right, I'm in this thing. Can you
help me out financially?" And they’d say, "Sure! Here's ten dollars." Maybe they only had ten dollars, but they wouldn't
take the time to call ten friends and try to get ten dollars out of them.
I never had any strong financial supporters.
Some people do. Carl Sanders, for instance, had J.B. Fuqua. Ellis Arnall, on the other hand, personally financed the vast
bulk of his costly campaign even though he was the front-runner and people thought he was going to win. That had a lot to
do with my own decision, seeing what happened to him.
When I entered politics, I was an unknown
in a nine-man race. I had to become known, and my race cost about $10,600, almost
all of it mine. That put me in debt right at the beginning of my political career, and I was never able to get out of debt
The initial loss, then, is the loss of the
campaign expense. On top of that, you have the loss of the income you could have earned while you were out politicking. In
my case, I charge $30 an hour as a CPA. Every hour of politicking, making a speech or shaking hands is $30 out of my pocket.
I had no income during my first campaign because I devoted full time to getting elected. So it actually cost me considerably
more than $10,600. Really, if I had known I was going to get that deep in debt, I would have stayed out. But once started,
there was no way of stopping it.
Of course, it could have been worse; I could
have been defeated and still have been in debt. But at least then I could have gone back to work and rapidly paid off the
So you get elected, and you're paid practically
nothing. The salary's been raised now, but for four years I made only $2,000 a year for my Senate work. I felt I owed the
job at least 50 per cent of my time; at that rate my whole time would have been worth only $4,000 a year -which is sort of
ridiculous. Now, of course, the salaries are $5,200 a year, including expenses, which is a lot better. If I'd had the $5,200
to begin with, I'd probably still be in politics. But $5,200 still isn't enough.
At the beginning, I thought that being elected
to public office would help my business. I think most people have that idea; they think because you receive honors and get
your name in the paper everyday and have the title of senator that your income is somehow increased. The reverse is true,
because of the time the job takes away from you.
Immediately after you're elected, suddenly
you're bombarded with people who want to talk to you about political matters. You have to have lunch with them or have them
come by your office. You're invited out to meetings and to make public appearances and you find your time is no longer your
own, even before the legislature is in session.
In the month of December particularly, just
prior to the session, a legislator is called on practically full time. In my opinion, that month you work free for the taxpayers.
It's just a total loss.
Then in January the session starts. Originally
I'd thought I could do a little work during the session, at night and on the weekends; I'd always worked long hours anyway.
But if you're conscientious, and I tried to be, you get immersed in the importance of passing laws -you've got a thousand
bills introduced during the session and you try to be an expert on all of them- and you end up devoting all of your time during
the session of being a legislator.
But finally the session's over and you say,
"Well, at least now I can get back to work." But you're called upon twelve months of the year to make speeches and attend
meetings. People call you with problems and you've got to take time to listen even if you can't help, or else they feel they
aren't communicating with their legislator.
The third major cost of holding office is
the extra expense, like getting a wedding invitation from someone you never heard of and being expected to send a gift. You
find when you get elected to office that the number of wedding invitations and birth announcements sent you will multiply
about tenfold. What it boils down to is that people take advantage of public officials.
You have a wider circle of friends; anybody
in public office gets out and gets to know a whole lot more people than the average man. And the more people you know, the
more people you have to take out to lunch, the more organizations you're invited to join-and of course, when you join you
have to pay dues- and you get put on the boards of charitable organizations and they have dinner meetings and you're expected
to pay the cost of the dinner meeting. You're expected to send flowers to funerals of people you normally wouldn't send flowers
to- because you're in public office.
Much of this I didn't do because I just
couldn't afford it. I simply did not send flowers to a lot of funerals and did not buy gifts for a lot of people who got married.
But there are some that you have to do, and they add up to a tremendous cost.
These are the three major expenses I found.
And to me it's a great tragedy. I could see from my own experience how easy it would be for a man to enter politics full of
idealism and honesty and integrity, and to gradually get deeper and deeper in debt, and at some point to begin to make compromises
- minor financial compromises to begin with- and gradually find himself obligated to other people. I can see how a guy could
really get himself into trouble, how an honest man could turn into a dishonest man gradually over a period of years and never
realize what had happened to him until it was too late. This scared me to death. I saw my children growing older and my income
going down, and I finally came to the conclusion that I would have to get out of politics if I wanted to maintain my integrity.
I can't say whether there are many temptations
to sell your vote in the Georgia Senate. I've always been such an independent and so outspoken that I was never approached.
If somebody had made me an offer I would have accepted it and then turned them in and had them arrested- and they knew it.
But there were tremendous rumors during one particularly controversial issue that involved great amounts of money this past
session-rumors of legislators being on the payrolls of various concerns. Whether the rumors were true, I just don't know.
I'd like to think they were not.
Obviously, something must be done. The state
needs no officials who would make ends meet dishonestly. The state does need the best men it can find in public office, and
that means making it possible for all good men to run- not merely the rich ones.
A big salary raise for legislators, a minimum
of $12,000 per year, plus $6,000 expenses, is needed. Then the man who was dedicated could afford to take the time required
to be dedicated. The man who wasn't dedicated would be a loss to the taxpayers, but the gain of more men who were dedicated
being able to run for office and stay in office would certainly offset the loss.
Setting an arbitrary limit on campaign expenses
wouldn't help much. There are too many ways to make such a law unenforceable. However, a law requiring full disclosure of
expenditures and sources would let public know if a politician were obligated to some selfish interest group.
The man who has the advantage in today's
politics in Georgia is the man who is
accepting money from someone, who has sold his soul, so to speak. He's got the money and nobody knows it. The guy who's trying
to be honest doesn't have the money, yet so far as the public knows he may have just as much.
Some say the public, in the interest of
obtaining good candidates and honest government, should foot campaign expenses. South
Carolina provides public forums in the governor's race; all the candidates travel around together
and speak together at the state's expense.
But raising salaries seems simplest and
best. Georgia isn't the only state that
pays its legislators low wages, but some states pay better. New York, Michigan
and Pennsylvania pay their legislators respectively $15,000,
$17,000 and $9,000 per year.
To reduce the burden to taxpayers in Georgia, both houses of the legislature could be reduced in
size. This would benefit the state in any event, with or without a pay raise.
Let me tell you what five years of public
office meant to me financially and personally. If it hadn't been for some property I inherited in South Carolina, I wouldn't have been able to enter politics at all. I mortgaged that. There's
a second mortgage on my house. In addition to that, I owe the bank about $10,000 in open-type notes.
Our standard of living decreased quickly
after I was elected. For the past four years, my wife has taken in sewing to help pay some of the bills. I expect she's the
only state senator's wife in America who
has to do that. The people in the neighborhood know it, but the general public didn't. She sewed for the dry cleaners behind
For the first time in my life I was delinquent
paying creditors. All my life I'd paid every bill on the tenth day of each month, but suddenly I wasn't able to anymore. This
looks crazy-being a CPA and not being able to manage your own affairs, apparently.
When you're nobody and you're delinquent
paying your bills, only your creditors know it; but if you're in public office and your name is a household word, you feel
like everybody knows it.
I understand, however, that most public
officials are late in paying their month-to-month bills.
For five years, I've never been able to
catch up. I'd borrow some money and catch up for a while, but in a month or two I'd be behind again. It's extremely embarrassing
to get delinquency notices and have people threatening to sue you. Of course, a lot of people were awfully nice about it;
I think some gave me more credit than they would normally have, gave me more time to pay.
I even thought about getting out of the
CPA business and into something else where I could make more money and still be a senator. I thought perhaps some company
would like to have the prestige of a state senator working for it. I even had friends feel out numerous businesses in Atlanta - but I never found any interested in a politician, or at least
not in one who was independent. I also offered myself as controller or treasurer of various firms, since that would be in
my line of work. A number of concerns said they would hire me immediately if I would get out of politics. But none wanted
to dirty its hands with a practicing politician, though you hear all the time of organizations urging their executives to
get involved in civic affairs, run for office. To me, all this speaks badly for business. I'm inclined to think business would
get a whole lot better break from politicians if they would support politics more.
Then this job in Peru came along, and I decided to take it. It has certain advantages- the main
one being that my income will be tax except when I stay out of the country for 18 months. I came to the conclusion that the
quickest way I could get caught up again would be to get out of the United
States. This wasn't the only attraction the Lima job held,
but it was a big one because I didn't particularly want to leave Atlanta.
When I finish with this job in two years,
I'm coming back to Atlanta and resume my practice as a consultant
on governmental administration and finance. And I'm going to stay in my professional filed. I'll never run for public office
ames Pickett Wesberry Jr. was the principal
litigant in a landmark Supreme Court case, Wesberry v. Sanders, which in 1964 laid
down for the first time in writing the maxim that congressional districts had to be apportioned according to the ideal of
"one man-one vote." The decision will eventually result in the redrawing of 400 of the nation's 435 districts, and is mentioned
in all recently written history books.
He is a past national vice-president and
treasurer of the Jaycees, and has held numerous Jaycee positions on the state and local level. He is a past director of Goodwill
Industries of Atlanta, Inc., and active in many other civic and social organizations.
He directed the governmental affairs program
of the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce for two years as chairman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, received an award
as Outstanding National Chairman for his work, which included founding the magazine GO
Fulton County Comptroller John Still, a
friend of the senator, said through Sen. Wesberry's efforts Georgia citizens have been made aware that "there is such a thing
as proper accounting to determine if public officers are living up to their responsibilities." Previously, he said, there
were only two or three laws on the state stature books regarding the handling of public money, one of which stated that the
treasurer of each county "shall have a well-bound book." The senator has authored six bills involving statewide fiscal responsibility
and hung numerous amendments on other laws that, in his own words, "have laid a foundation for sound financial management
and high auditing and accounting standards which will, I believe, result in much better financial management during coming
years by local and state government."
His job in Peru will be accounting systems advisor to the national government; principally
participating in a program of financial reform in the Peruvian Comptroller's Office and the Ministry of Finance.
He is the son of James P. Wesberry Sr.,
pastor of Atlanta's Mornignside
Baptist Church and head of the
State Literature Commission. The Rev. Mr. Wesberry in 1949 served as acting chaplain in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Later he toured the Soviet Union and wrote a book on his experiences. He has participated
in four Protestant Preaching Missions to overseas armed forces bases.
Mr. Wesberry Jr. is listed in Outstanding
Young Men of American and was named one of Georgia's
five Outstanding Young Men of 1963. He is 32 years old.
He was elected chairman of the Fulton Senate
delegation in 1965-66 and became chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions and Mental Health in 1967, the youngest
senator ever to chair a committee.
He established accounting systems and budgets
for Economic Opportunity Atlanta Inc., when it was created, and the systems became a model for the national anti-poverty program
and led to a special assignment to develop an accounting manual for community action agencies receiving federal grants that
is to be distributed nationwide.
He was vice-president of the National Society
of State Legislators in 1965-66.
When he was 19, he designed and built his
own ultramodern home, which was featured in Better Homes and Gardens Yearbook of the 100 best new homes in America.
He was strongly resented by many rural legislators
for his outspoken ways, and was once presented with a broken-down plug mule after a particularly irritating outburst against
enemies of reapportionment. He was called once "the most controversial politician since Gene Talmadge." Critics said he gave
up effectiveness as a legislator for the luxury of always saying what he thought. Yet there were evidences - like his election
as chairman of the county delegation - that he was trying harder to get along with his fellow senators.
He was, said a
recent editorial, "a maverick, an independent, an original thinker. There are not many in politics like him… We will
miss Sen. Wesberry, indeed… We shall think of the senator whenever the public needs a champion at the Capitol and nobody
volunteers for the job." q