April 13 2015
Ron Johnson’s voice, loud and animated, crackled from the radio. In response to a question about local politics, he enthusiastically mentioned the 9th district GOP banquet. “We’re trying to get Scott Walker!” he exclaimed, “We’re really working on Scott Walker.”
Immediately after leaving the air, Johnson, the Second Vice Chair of the Georgia GOP, begins to take personal calls. At the same time, he drives across the state to county GOP meetings, every once in a while losing the connection as he travels down off-the-beaten-path roads to get to very, very small population counties so that he can help with their meetings.
Very often, he goes to Athens.
At a College Republicans meeting, Johnson smiled at the group of college students. “What county are you from?” he shot at one girl. “Gwinnett? That’s an easy one. Yep, I’ve been there! Great GOP there.”
Johnson has been to 75 counties in Georgia. His dedication to local politics enthusiasm bordering on passion, he has no obligation to travel the state, but does so of his own volition, simply because he likes being involved.
While he GOP-meeting hops across the state on a daily basis, he keeps in mind those counties he feels need him the most. He tries to go to the smaller counties most often, ones with the smallest populations.
“Those are the counties that need the most help,” Johnson explains. “They’ve got their own rules, but they don’t understand some of the state rules. I help explain the rules to them, and make it pretty simple so they can understand all the rules they have to follow.”
He is, if not the only person, the “main one” that does this. In this way, he makes himself well-known statewide.
His zeal for local politics colors his everyday life. “I think it’s more important!” he exclaimed, when asked if local politics is as important as federal. He cites the gridlock in Washington, and the necessary majority Congress needs to pass a bill. “I actually believe at your local level you can make changes and get things done.”
Besides the possibility of change on a local level, Johnson mentioned the ability of local legislators to raise taxes. “The people who hurt you the most with the amount of money they take is not the federal government. The counties and the cities tax your home. And they can raise them however they want to.”
More people, he said, become involved in politics before a Presidential election. He believes this is backwards, if understandable.
“You really need to get involved in local elections, because that’s who hurt you,” he said, “That’s the way government’s supposed to operate. Not trying to take all your money. A little piece of it is fine.”
His proudest material accomplishment at the moment involves the Georgia Veteran’s Committee. This year, the committee donated wheelchairs to Paralympic participants—two tennis chairs, a basketball chair, and a racing chair.
“They make the Paralympic chairs and they’re handmade right here in Georgia. They make it so it fits them perfectly.”
Interrupting his GOP political talk, Johnson talked about the chairs for several minutes, and kept coming back to them. A retired veteran himself, the wheelchairs for Paralympic athletes hit home for him.
“It’s something they can get through the VA, but it probably takes a year and half to get one of those chairs,” he explained. “We made it happen in less than a month. We made it happen, we got them one of the best chairs in the world and it was made in Georgia.”
Another of Johnson’s major focuses is on Republican youth involvement. Saying that youth involvement is “absolutely” important for the future of Republican politics, one reason Johnson travels to Athens so often is the large youth population—he wants to motivate them to become more active in GOP politics, especially on the local level.
“When the Republican Party talks about reaching out to the youth, they’re talking about reaching out to the 25-40 group,” he said. “When I talk about reaching out to the youth, I’m talking about the Teen Republicans in High School and the College Republicans in universities.”
“They’ve supported me,” Johnson said about the young Athens Republicans, singling out several who had worked for his campaigns and helped him with district and county projects.
Turning to the rest of the group, Johnson encouraged everyone to go to their county GOP meetings—not just to become involved, but to jump in with both feet and run for positions in the near future. “We’re looking for those people,” he said, referring to motivated young Republicans who could become the future party leaders.
A way that Johnson has encouraged these young people to become involved in very real ways has been the convention cycle. Georgia, in the midst of their nominating district conventions and leading up to the large GOP State Convention, is undergoing potential changes in leadership and internal political affairs. Again pointing out a few college students, both in Athens and from other schools, Johnson brought up the State Convention as a prime example of youth involvement.
“I’ve looked at the number of College Republicans who were delegates,” he said. “Everyone should think about becoming a delegate next time.”
The Convention itself, according to Johnson, is going to be interesting. The outcomes are difficult to predict, he says, but it will certainly be interesting to watch.
Johnson’s interest in local politics did not preclude his increasing attention on the 2016 presidential election. “The more interesting one is going to be the 2015 one where we pick delegates for the national convention. I’ve been through a couple of those, and those really bring out people you’ve never seen before.”
The impact of local politics, to Johnson, is even more important with those large national elections approaching. “It’s really important that young people get involved, and especially in local politics,” he said.
“They don’t think they can have impacts, but they do. That’s why I push so hard for them to get involved. I’ll say that I’ve never turned down a College Republicans meeting! Sometimes I come to them even when I’m not invited.”
Though he may be young, Brennan Mancil has no short list of responsibilities. A delegate to the Georgia GOP Convention, an active member of Athens GOP, and the Vice President of the University of Georgia College Republicans, Mancil is working hard to prepare for the next election cycle.
Eager to speak about Republican politics, Mancil talked openly about the upcoming Georgia GOP Convention. “Everyone already has their delegates in,” he said, “and the Convention is in May.”
The Georgia Republican Convention is looking to be star-studded this year, with the list of invited speakers including several potential presidential candidates. Secretary of State Brian Kemp reportedly has invited a growing list of speakers, which include presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz as well Gov. Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and John Kasich; Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham; and former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush.
The focus so far has been on Cruz, with Kemp saying that he “will personally help coordinate all the details to ensure a smooth and successful visit,” if Sen. Cruz is able to attend.
With Ted Cruz’s announcement Monday that he was throwing in his name as a presidential candidate, pressure on local Republican activists to begin preparing for the elections has been progressively intensifying.
Mancil, as a local GOP delegate, said that there has been a scramble, especially for candidates, to begin campaigning earlier.
“I would say that organizations that support candidates are getting out earlier,” Mancil said, “And the local GOP—we’re always trying to fund raise. But if you start really campaigning now, people will forget about your candidate quicker.”
With 2016 fast approaching, Athens GOP members like Mancil are already feeling the campaign buzz. For the Athens branch of the GOP, state nominations are a direct reflection of future political circumstances, and the beginning of a two-year race towards a Republican presidency.
Georgia, Mancil says, is a fairly good indicator of the Republican Party’s atmosphere leading up to the presidential primaries next year. “I think that Georgia accurately represents the more conservative side of the Republican Party,” Mancil said. “We have the second most number of delegates. Nationally Georgia is to the right, but Georgia regionally, certainly, we meet it perfectly.”
Georgia’s large number of delegates is drawing both candidates and divisiveness, according to Mancil. The invitations to the Georgia State Convention from Secretary Kemp were extended to a wide range of ideological leanings, from right-of-center Ted Cruz to perceived establishment moderate Jeb Bush.
“There’s a lot of disagreement on who to back.” Mancil said of this, “In Athens, and out of state.”
According to Mancil, there are already people leaving Athens and Georgia to help with super PACs and work on Ted Cruz’s campaign. The Tea Party, Mancil said, is “strong in Georgia,” but he expressed some skepticism that Cruz would win in the primaries.
“In is announcement speech, Ted really tried to appeal to religious conservatives,” Mancil said, “because it’s the second biggest demographic in Georgia.”
The State Convention will include much divisive language, according to Mancil. “There’s a lot of internal party drama,” he said. Besides the disagreements regarding presidential candidates, this internal disunity can be seen on a more local scale, he said, in state politics, especially the Georgia Republican Convention.
The Georgia delegates will be voting for the next chairman; the incumbent chairman is John Padgett, with Alex Johnson running as a challenger. Mancil said he is looking forward to an intense convention, but doesn’t anticipate an intense election.
“It’ll be heated in the rhetoric, but not in the actual results, he said. “It won’t be a very close election.”
When pressed on this, Mancil smiled, shook his head, and said, “It’ll be an easy win for John because Alex really represents the libertarian wing. He won’t win.”
The Convention itself, a weekend-long event, will be held in Athens on May 15 and 16. Most of the big name Republican speakers, according to Mancil, will be speaking on May 15, while May 16 is mainly the actual voting.
While the Republican speakers will be of most interest to average voters, he said, the really heated rhetoric will take place the next day, when the Georgia representatives and senators speak, moving up to the chairman: “It gets more heated the higher the level.”
The Georgia GOP convention cycle is an important aspect of pre-election political groundwork. While there may be off-years for the average citizen, party members, Mancil says, are involved in a never-ending cycle of intense politicking. When not aggressively working towards elections, they are constantly preparing to do so.
While they are not yet actively campaigning, Mancil said, “everyone is talking about 2016.”
Alan and Nicol Seider lounge across their couch, the foster care agency website pulled up on their laptop. They turn the computer so that it faces outward. A picture of a small blonde seven-year-old, front teeth missing, smiles from the screen.
“This is Crystal. Isn’t she cute?” Nicol Seider said, smiling. “We aren’t getting her—she’s going to a different family. But I’m just happy she’s going somewhere. So many children need a home. There are so many kids in foster care.”
Nicol and Alan Seider have wanted to adopt a child for years, and decided to adopt out of the foster system, due to what they see as the dire need for these children to find homes.
“They go from home to home a lot of times, and often there are a lot of kids in one home, because there aren’t enough foster parents,” Nicol Seider said.
Around 8,800 children in the Georgia foster care system, according to data from the Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS. In Athens-Clarke County alone, there are at least 180 foster children, and nowhere near enough homes to take them all in. According to the most recent DFCS data, there are fewer than 20 registered foster homes in Athens.
This lack of foster homes has become a growing concern among DFCS workers. Worried about the shortage of foster parents, DFCS last year began new initiatives to increase the number of foster families in Georgia, and specifically in Athens-Clarke County, where the poverty rate is high; 39.1 percent of children in Athens-Clarke County live below the poverty line, compared to the statewide 22.1 percent, according to city data.
The recession took a toll on the willingness of families to foster children, according to community foster care workers. Children in foster care have been removed from homes due to abuse or neglect, often specifically neglect due to poverty or poverty related issues. Since caseworkers try to place children in homes that are able to accommodate them, there are fewer potential homes in Athens-Clarke County, due to both personal choice and inability to meet basic qualifications.
Athens has a high rate of placing children in other counties. About 40 percent of children in the district are placed outside of the area, which also increases expenses, giving Athens the third highest transportation cost in the state. Placing children in other regions also sets back the main goals of the foster system, which are reunification with parents and familiarity while the children are in foster homes.
Placing children far from their original homes makes achieving these goals challenging, according to orientation leader Brigette Love, who says that transporting children to other counties breaks up families even further.
Athens began to experience an even more serious shortage of foster families after proposed Senate Bill 350 in the Georgia legislature that would privatize foster care in the state fell through. Athens was supposed to be one of the few first pilots for the system, so the county had been referring potential foster parents to private foster care agencies instead of government agencies. This made it more difficult when privatization was suspended, because the government was now lacking even more parents.
These referrals to private agencies combined with state budget cuts that laid off DFCS resource workers, and a new child protective services reporting system that greatly increased the number of cases DFCS is currently handling, to cause the current dire lack of foster families, according to DFCS region V director Mary Havick.
The Athens-Clarke County DFCS began pushing initiatives last year to encourage people to become foster families in response to this huge disparity. New efforts to recruit foster parents include monthly orientation meetings that allow people considering becoming foster parents to ask questions in a comfortable environment.
Volunteers are also finding other ways to help foster children. Private organizations work closely with the foster system and provide temporary childcare, transportation, or foster child sponsorship. Volunteers work to collect needed items like bedding, clothes, and diapers for the children.