The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
State Sen. John Bulloch had never heard of state Rep. Matt Ramsey until last fall, when they were appointed to a committee charged with crafting an immigration bill.
Bulloch, a farmer and veteran Republican legislator from South Georgia, was there to protect farmers’ ability to get laborers.
Ramsey, a Peachtree City lawyer with just three years under his belt in the House, was there to shepherd a bill aimed at curtailing illegal immigration, a measure that assuredly would create a firestorm.
This month, after a raucous debate, noisy protests, threatened lawsuits and legislative maneuvering, Bulloch and Ramsey faced off alone in a room at the state Capitol. It was here that Ramsey, a little-known quantity before this year, was transformed into the rising political star — or villain — of the 2011 session.
It was the last day of the legislative session. The clock was ticking.
The Senate bill, which was more favorable to agribusiness, had been gutted by the House. Bulloch feared sending it into a conference committee, where the two chambers would hash out a compromise. “You never know what happens in one,” he said. “I’d rather look in a man’s face and cut a deal.”
So Bulloch took his chances with the relative newbie. The two debated whether employers should be forced to use the federal E-Verify program, which determines if new hires are eligible to work in the United States. Bulloch had knocked it out of the bill. Ramsey put it back in. It stayed. Bulloch wanted to exempt businesses with 25 employees or less from E-Verify. Ramsey drew the line at 10 or less.
“He stood firm,” Bulloch said. “When he couldn’t go further, he wouldn’t.”
House Speaker David Ralston, who picked Ramsey to sit on the committee, was so pleased with Ramsey’s doggedness that he lent him the gavel in the session’s closing hours to preside over the House for a couple of bills.
“He is a rising leader of the House,” said Ralston, who selected Ramsey to carry the bill because he was smart, thorough — and because he raised his hand for duty. “This confirms what we have known all along. He was headed upward.”
Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney who is drafting a lawsuit against the legislation, criticized Ramsey for not including him and other immigration lawyers in crafting the bill.
“It’s so poorly written, you can fly 747s through it,” he said.
Kuck, too, had never heard of Ramsey until this effort. Kuck saw it as a move by an ambitious young legislator to make himself a name. “You get out in front of it, push it blindly and it makes you popular with at least half of the people,” he said.
Ramsey, sitting in his Peachtree City law office last week, smiled when asked about the recent whirlwind and pointed to piles of legal work still to be done.
“My law partners want to chain me to my desk,” Ramsey said.
The rancor and intensity of the session was a world away from drawing wills and setting up LLCs for clients.
“You can’t prepare for how much scorn and how bitter the debate would be,” said Ramsey, who said he turned over to state police some e-mails and phone messages he perceived as threats.
Though Ramsey, 35, was in the House just three years before this session, he said he had plenty of experience, working as former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s floor leader for two years.
“You carry more bills in a two-year span than a normal legislator does in 10,” he said. “It was like getting a master’s degree in being a legislator.”
Ramsey has been preparing for this session for years. He was a political science major at Georgia Southern, interned for a state rep and a congressman, worked for U.S. Rep. Mac Collins in Georgia and in Washington and went to law school at Georgia State University at night.
In 2007, state Rep. Dan Lakly died and Ramsey saw his opening. The former Fayette County High School football center ran for the seat and won.
Ramsey’s home county has seen the Hispanic population more than double in the past 10 years.
Ramsey argues the flood of illegal immigrants in Georgia has been expensive for taxpayers, increasing school, health care and law enforcement costs. Immigrants come for jobs, so limiting access to employment was the right way to go, he said. “It would be a complete and total abdication of our responsibility if we didn’t remove incentives to illegal aliens.”
Agree with him or not, many constituents and colleagues comment on his sincerity, calling him a pleasant fellow who’s always willing to listen.
“But hearing people and listening to them is two different things,” said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, who fought the immigration bill hard. “They have increased the reach of government.”
But, Ramsey said, it was an issue voters talked about everywhere he went — Kiwanis clubs, grocery stores, ball games. People demanded action, he said, so the state had to act.
Next up? Ralston tabbed Ramsey to be the vice chairman of the House reapportionment committee, which will draw up new districts this summer.
Census figures show Georgia has grown 18 percent and will receive a 14th seat in the U.S. House. That means ambitious Republicans across the state will lobby their GOP comrades in the Legislature — who now run the show — to carve out that new district for them. The GOP also will undoubtedly try to use redistricting to maximize its hold on the two state houses.
Ramsey will be in the thick of it.