Georgia GOP investigates 'physical altercation' at weekend convention

The Georgia GOP’s incoming chair said Monday he is investigating reports of a "physical altercation" involving an organizer of last weekend's state convention who witnesses said shoved the party's diversity coordinator to the ground at the Augusta event.

John Watson, who was elected to lead the state party on Saturday, said in a statement that he's investigating because "physical altercation of any kind for any reason at any party event is never acceptable."

Neither Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s minority engagement director, or Gene Callaway, a part-time Doraville police officer who was serving as the party’s sergeant-at-arms, commented about the altercation. Watson said he didn't witness it.

State GOP officials said they have heard from several witnesses. Here’s what we pieced together based on three accounts from witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confrontation:

The incident took place Friday at the Augusta Marriott, where more than 1,500 Republican delegates gathered this weekend to choose a new party chair and hear from GOP candidates.

It started when Callaway, who was serving in a voluntary role that involved helping organize the event's logistics, asked Smith whether he had “all access passes” for the event as he was walking down a hall. Smith said he did and identified himself as a party executive. When Callaway asked him to hand the passes over, Smith continued walking down the hall.

Callaway followed him to a crowded hotel registration room, where Smith approached Anne Lewis, the Georgia GOP counsel, and asked her to confirm his identity. She did, and the altercation ensued.

At some point, according to the accounts, Callaway shoved Smith and he fell over several chairs and wound up on the floor. Witnesses told us it’s not clear what led to the shove.

Smith and Lewis declined comment. Callaway did not return several calls.

It's the second recent high-profile incident involving an African-American state GOP official. Michael McNeely, who was the party's vice-chair, was thrown out of a Donald Trump event in June 2016 at the Fox Theatre. McNeely later said he left after a "discussion about room access" and that he had no ill will toward the event organizers.

Smith was hired by chair John Padgett to coordinate outreach efforts to increase the party’s appeal to minorities, and he's traveled the state and appeared on local and national media to tout the party's message.

The incident took place hours before a vote to replace Padgett with incoming chair Watson, who vowed to restore the party’s luster after an embarrassing lawsuit.

That legal complaint filed by a black former Georgia GOP staffer claimed she was racially discriminated by Padgett, a claim he and the party deny. The party's fundraising has dried up since the lawsuit and the party now carries about $100,000 more debt than cash.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.