State Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, in a still photo from Showtime’s “Who is America?” Photo Credit: Showtime

Jason Spencer and the ‘crazy’ factor in Georgia politics

There’s crazy, and then there’s crazy.

We are now done with the extra-innings portion of the 2018 primary season, which may be best remembered for a secret recording in which Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was caught telling the truth about many things, including the state of Republican dialogue.

“This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest,” Cagle told his new best friend and confidante, Clay Tippins, at the very outset of this runoff season.

The cycle closed a few hours ago with a not-so-secret recording that had nothing to do with the GOP race for governor. It was a video in which Jason Spencer, a lame-duck state House member from south Georgia, was persuaded to moon a nationwide TV audience, spew the n-word, and take an “upskirt” photo of a woman in a burqa.

Granted, the woman was willing – but that last act was made illegal in Georgia in 2017. Spencer voted to make it so.

As of this writing, the YouTube version had been seen 2.2 million times. Call me crazy, but it was beyond embarrassing.

Spencer had been pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Showtime series,“Who is America?” Cohen had portrayed himself as an Israeli security expert who offered to help Spencer sharpen his anti-terrorism skills.

Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, and Cagle on Monday called for Spencer’s immediate resignation. State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, has demanded the governor call the Legislature into special session so that Spencer can be properly ousted.

None of this is likely to happen. We will explain the why of this in a few paragraphs, but first we need to talk about crazy.

What You Need to Know: Jason Spencer

Cohen & Co. justified their targeting of Spencer by highlighting some of his more outlandish activity. For instance, his 2017 bill to ban the wearing of burqas on public property of any sort.

And his curious post-Charlottesville discussion on Facebook with former House colleague LaDawn Jones, in which he warned Jones, who is African-American, not to bring her talk of removing Confederate statues anywhere near his rural community of Woodbine (population 1,300 or so). “Continue your quixotic journey into South Georgia and it will not be pleasant. The truth. Not a warning,” he wrote.

Spencer may be gullible, he may never have been embraced by the House Republican leadership, but he isn’t crazy. He is a cultural absolutist. And while his behavior may strike some of you as odd, his legislative agenda has resonated with a significant fraction of Georgia’s Republican electorate.

In apologizing for his on-camera behavior, Spencer accused TV producers of tapping his “paralyzing fear” of the threat that an encroaching world poses to him, his family and his neighbors. I believe him.

Spencer was speaking specifically of the threat posed by Islamic terrorism to him and his. But I also think this fear explains much of his legislation, down to this year’s bill to exempt Georgia from daylight savings time.

Dismissing Spencer as crazy wouldn’t just be unfair to him. It would also be a disservice to you, because it would negate his very real impact on your life. That push to establish a private space pad on the Georgia coast? Spencer has been part of that.

He was also a primary force in efforts, thus far unsuccessful, to give those molested as children more time – as adults – to bring charges against their abusers. “Jason Spencer was the energy, the leader and relentless on ‘hidden predator’ bills. I was his No. 2 signature for several years. I respect his energy, and I’m incredibly saddened,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said on GPB’s “Political Rewind” on Monday.

Spencer also bears a good deal of responsibility for the shape of health care in Georgia today. When the individual health care exchanges authorized by the Affordable Care Act came on line, the University of Georgia obtained a sizeable federal grant to help the uninsured navigate the new system.

In 2014, Spencer introduced legislation to forbid any arm of state government from cooperating with Obamacare. The legislation was drawn from the “anti-commandeering” doctrine in American jurisprudence, Spencer said at the time. (The same argument has now been deployed by some local governments that object to being used to enforce federal immigration policies, but that’s a topic for another day.)

A watered-down version of Spencer’s bill passed, and UGA was forced to give up the federal grant. More importantly, Spencer became a major backer of another anti-Obamacare bill that passed that year.

House Bill 990 decreed that only the Legislature, not the governor, could approve an expansion of Medicaid coverage for an estimated 600,000 Georgians without health insurance – as the ACA has offered to do. That’s still the case, even as rural hospitals in the state close, one after another.

Which brings us back to the reason that Jason Spencer is unlikely to be forced from office. As mentioned, Spencer was defeated in a GOP primary last May. His term expires when his replacement comes on the scene next year.

My Journal-Constitution colleague James Salzer notes that by extending his service to January, Spencer will have the eight years he needs to qualify for a state pension. It won’t offer much in the way of cash, perhaps $36 a month – and then only once he’s 60.

But once vested, Spencer and his family will be immediately eligible for a lifetime of state-subsidized health insurance. And with that coverage will come the restful knowledge that, because of his service, his community won’t be tainted by the expanding scourge of Obamacare.

Like I said: There’s crazy, and then there’s crazy.

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About the Author

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