Political Insider

An AJC blog about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics, Georgia and metro Atlanta election campaigns. Because all politics is local.

How a lack of alliances doomed Tom Price

Tom Price was never a politician with a natural talent for building alliances. And in the end, that may have cost him.

The 62-year-old secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Republican assigned the task of personally dismantling Obamacare, resigned on Friday after losing the confidence of a president who prizes loyalty over all else.

Price’ staffers had defended $1 million in government-funded travel in a short five months by pointing to their boss’ insistence on squeezing value from every minute of the day. Anyone who had watched Price cut a 22-year swath through Georgia politics knew what they meant.

Even so, Washington marveled at the blissfully tone-deaf nature of Price’s offense, made on behalf of an administration that has promised time and again to drain D.C.’s swamp of privilege.

And that was a side of Tom Price familiar to Georgians, too.

Let it be noted that, as Price was building up frequent-flyer points on private jets this summer, another cabinet member from Georgia, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, was conducting his own cross-country outreach campaign as Trump’s new secretary of agriculture. Perdue’s mode of transport was an RV.

As you cull the newspaper clips of past decades, you see Price described as the brightest man in most rooms. A memorizer of rule books — and thus a man capable of complicated, often cagey maneuvers. And a candidate who would not be outworked. “The thing you hear most about Tom Price is how smart he is. He is constantly reading and absorbing and learning,” said Eric Johnson, then a Republican state senator from Savannah, when Price left the state Capitol for Washington.

Price’s best moment in Georgia politics may have been his first congressional win in 2004.

The Sixth District had been designed for Cobb County residents like Newt Gingrich or Johnny Isakson – the latter had just vacated the seat to join the U.S. Senate.

At that time, six of every 10 voters in the Sixth lived in Cobb. Price was a wealthy orthopedic surgeon who lived in north Fulton County. On the plus side, he had earned kudos for organization as the state Senate’s first Republican majority leader. The downside: He had a pencil-thin moustache.

Price scraped his upper lip clean and sealed his reputation as an indefatigable workaholic by winning an August runoff.

But the Roswell Republican, now a member of Congress, was also defined by what came four years later.

In 2010, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal made a bid for governor with the unanimous backing of Georgia’s Republican congressional delegation – including Price.

Then the caustic details of a congressional investigation into Deal’s business practices emerged and threatened to deep-six the campaign.

Price bailed, switching his allegiance to a rival, Karen Handel, the former secretary of state.

“As a native Georgian, I was brought up to believe that a person’s word is his bond,” Deal said in response, dispensing shade upon Price’s trustworthiness and his Michigan upbringing in a single sentence.

But there’s more to the story. To Republican friends, Price characterized his switch in loyalties as a kind of insurance policy. If Handel, a fellow north Fulton resident, were to become governor – Deal would only narrowly defeat her in a primary runoff – the congressional delegation would still have entrée at the state Capitol.

But that spring, at the outset of his first U.S. Senate re-election bid, 65-year-old Johnny Isakson had been twice hospitalized – the result of an undetected and quite dangerous staph infection. Rumors about his health were circulating.

Behind the scenes, many ranking Republicans suspected Price of placing a high-risk, high-payoff bet. If Handel were to become governor, and if Isakson were unable to finish his next term, Price would be well-positioned for an appointment to fill the empty U.S. Senate seat.

In other words, with a single move that May, Price managed to tick off two of Georgia’s top Republican figures – and their large networks of followers.

Ties were eventually repaired, we’re told. But restored relationships are never as strong as the original.

Fortunately for Price, personal bonds weren’t the only currency in Washington. With a firm grasp of issues and process, Price ultimately became chairman of the House Budget Committee. Money helped.

In 2015 and 2016, Price raised and spent nearly $2.5 million in campaign funds, twice as much as any other House Republican from Georgia. Price sent more than $1 million to other candidates and causes.

Despite the largesse, Price’s lack of close personal relationships with other Republicans in Congress put a cap on his ambitions. And when John Boehner of Ohio resigned his House speakership two years ago, Price was in no position to muster the necessary alliances to replace him.

So when President Trump nominated Price to head up the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, citing his expertise as a physician and authorship of a bill to repeal Obamacare , Price jumped at the chance.

In that famous Cabinet meeting in June, when Trump invited his appointees to shower him with praise, Price was among the most obsequious. But it quickly became clear that the former Georgia congressman had no personal rapport with the president.

Price was onstage with Trump when the president addressed a Boy Scout jamboree in West Virginia. As he introduced Price, Trump touched on the topic of repealing Obamacare and the first of several upcoming votes in the Senate — all which would end in failure.

“He better get them. Oh, he better — otherwise, I’ll say, ‘Tom, you’re fired.’ I’ll get somebody,” Trump said. It was a joke. But not really, and Price’s discomfort showed.

On Saturday, a report from Politico.com included this final line of condemnation: “Two senior White House officials said Price’s relationships at the Capitol were not as good as he promised — and that some members preferred not to deal with him.”

But as Tom Price’s world came crashing down around his ears, what became most notable was the silence of his former Georgia colleagues in Congress. Even Karen Handel ignored requests for comment.

One of few to speak up on his behalf was Lynn Westmoreland, the retired congressman from Coweta County who in many ways was Price’s polar opposite: A back-slapping, slow-talking man who eschewed 14-hour days and had made do with a high-school education.

“Tommy is the most thrift-conscious person I know,” Westmoreland said. “He and (his wife, Betty Price) live a very humble life, so when I heard about it I was just really surprised.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.