McCain’s Georgia go-to on his ‘overlooked’ role in politics

Alec Poitevint is one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in Georgia Republican politics. But every time Sen. John McCain would visit, he'd take on a different role: Chauffeur.

Poitevint, a Bainbridge businessman who was once treasurer of the Republican National Committee, would pick McCain up at the airport and ferry him around the state for campaign stops, then often to the senator’s favorite local restaurant – La Grotta – for a bite to eat.

There were many of those trips, dating back to at least the early 1990s when McCain joined with fellow Republicans Phil Gramm and Paul Coverdell to rally against Hillary Clinton’s healthcare policy.

“John was always available in Georgia – and he was always low maintenance,” Poitevint said on Saturday. “I won’t name which Republicans I worked with that are high maintenance, but never John McCain. He’s been a part of what we’ve accomplished in Georgia.”

But he also wanted to talk about another “overlooked” role played by McCain, whose death Saturday to brain cancer triggered national mourning.

Poitevint is treasurer of the International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy abroad by monitoring elections and working with local governments to bolster civil society. McCain was the group’s chair for 25 years before stepping down earlier this month.

The non-profit is devoted to fostering “democracy in places where it is absent,” and Poitevint said his friend took that role seriously.

He traveled the globe to help the project’s missions, often bringing other lawmakers with him. And he fought in Congress to preserve its funding from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“He was very unselfish and never told us no,” said Poitevint, who remembered a trip to Russia a day after McCain had a cancerous tumor cut from his back. “Then he got on the plane the day after with 150 stitches and flew across the ocean.”

Poitevint remembers clashing with McCain over policy from time to time, notably over his campaign finance overhaul. Poitevint, as a top financier for national Republican causes, had a starkly different view on how campaign spending should be regulated.

“He’s the same guy one-on-one as he was in public. And you could actually disagree with him. I told him his finance reform isn’t stopping the problems, and he heard me out,” said Poitevint, who also chaired the Georgia GOP in the 2000s.

McCain had to scrap one long-planned trip with the institute to Russia because of an infection that left him hospitalized. Poitevint went instead with Cindy McCain, and he recalled landing in St. Petersburg – and getting frequent calls from the senator wanting to know updates on their mission.

“This is the John McCain I don’t think a lot of people understand,” said Poitevint. “He was always doing a lot of different services. And he was always game on.”

More recent AJC coverage of McCain’s life:

ExploreGeorgia officials celebrate McCain’s ‘unflinching integrity’
ExploreWith McCain’s death, a Vietnam vet disappears from the U.S. Senate
ExploreJimmy Carter mourns passing of “true patriot” John McCain
ExploreJohn McCain and the power of mourning