Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, might be among the most influential state legislators in recent memory, but it’s sometimes easy to forget.
He’s passionate about what he does, yet he’s not a firebrand. Throughout most of his political career he’s been a quiet source of sage counsel, both as an attorney to local governments and a state lawmaker.
Willard’s party took control of the state House in 2004, but he distinctly remembers when Democrats ran the show in Georgia.
“We just sat there and shook our fist at them,” Willard said. “That’s all we could do.”
Willard, 72, has seen more accomplishment than frustration throughout his political career. His fellow legislators speak highly of him, both for his keen mind and the way he carries himself when he’s at the state Capitol.
Willard said being a successful legislator requires “professional courtesy” and that he has worked to earn the trust of others and acted with integrity. He advises new members of the House to do the same.
“You’re going to be known for how you conduct yourself,” he said.
He married his wife, Vicki, in 1984, and has two children from a previous marriage. His son, Ken, lives in St. Louis and is a consultant for churches. His daughter, Kelly, resides near Roswell with her husband, Jake, and Willard’s 3-year-old grandson, Kaleb.
Willard describes himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican,” saying he’s fiscally conservative and socially progressive. In the current session, Willard co-signed House Bill 427, which seeks to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered state employees from workplace discrimination.
Willard said he hasn’t decided how much longer he’ll continue serving. He was first elected in 2000 and has another year before he’s up for re-election.
His first foray into Republican politics began when he was 18. He worked on the 1960 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, who lost that year but won the presidency in 1968.
Willard was born in Decatur and grew up in DeKalb County. He said public service is in his blood. His father worked in security doing background checks for the U.S. State Department, and his job took the younger Willard to live overseas. His grandfather served in the Alabama Legislature, Willard said.
Willard obtained his law degree from Atlanta Law School, graduating in 1965.
He ran for the state Legislature in 1970 but lost. He moved his family to north Fulton in 1986 and stayed put. He ran again in 2000 at the urging of friends within the party. He won and shortly thereafter met a woman named Eva Galambos who was working to start a new city, Sandy Springs. The city incorporated in 2005. Galambos became the city’s first mayor. Willard wrote the city’s charter, a document describing the powers, duties and functions of the city’s government. Willard currently works as the city’s attorney.
That charter has become the blueprint that Georgia’s other new cities – including Dunwoody and Brookhaven – have followed.
If a charter sounds bureaucratic and technical, it is. Willard has spent most of his career mired in the fine print of legislation and law.
Willard has served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee since 2005. This year, Willard and his committee are overhauling the juvenile justice system so that kids who skip school are treated differently than more dangerous youthful offenders. At the moment, the juvenile justice system doesn’t make very much distinction, Willard said.
The juvenile justice system has a 65 percent recidivism rate, a statistic Willard calls unacceptable.
“We’re really, as a state, damaging the greatest asset that we’ve got,” Willard said.
His initiatives to reform the state code will be his lasting legacy, said his friend Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven.
“Wendell is as good a legislator as they come,” Jacobs said. “He has a tremendous depth of experience as a lawyer and as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee he does a great job bringing that experience to bear in ways that really
benefit all of Georgia.”
Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta, said she’s clashed with Willard over legislation but said “overall I think he’s a very intelligent attorney. … He wasn’t very happy with me earlier this session when I disagreed with him on one of the first bills, but he understands. He understood that.”
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, has known Willard for 20 years.
“He is a very classy gentleman,” Oliver said. “I know the volume of work that he’s carrying, and I know the way in which he treats people respectfully. He provides a great model of public service, in my view.”
Willard said he likes the job, particularly finishing the complicated but necessary task of reforming dysfunctional state laws. He said he intends to work “as long as I could keep doing it.”