David Poythress didn’t fit the political mold.
He would read scholarly articles and listen to classical music as he crisscrossed Georgia running for statewide office, said George Langford, a former employee and friend of more than 30 years.
“And nobody has a resume like him in state government,” Langford said.
David Bryan Poythress — attorney, a two-time candidate for governor and commander of the Georgia Army and Air National Guard during the Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnian wars — died Jan. 15, while seeking medical treatment for a longtime lung illness. He was 73.
Although he never reached his goal of governor, Poythress parlayed smarts and ambition into several high-level state jobs: deputy revenue commissioner; assistant attorney general; state labor commissioner; secretary of state, and the first commissioner of the state Department of Medical Assistance.
DuBose Porter, a former legislator and Georgia Democratic Party chairman, said few can compare with Poythress. “When his nation or community called, he always answered,” Porter said. “He was an accomplished, noble patriot driven by the credo of ‘do the most good.’ ”
Poythress was born in Bibb County on Oct. 24, 1943 to John Maynor Poythress, head of Macon’s water department, and Dorothy Bayne Poythress, a school teacher and the founder of the state’s special education program.
He received his political science degree, law degree and commission as a U.S. Air Force officer at Emory University in the 1960s.
Poythress entered active duty as an assistant staff judge advocate at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Texas in 1967. He served four years on active duty, volunteering for service in Vietnam and spending a year as defense counsel and chief of military justice at Da Nang Air Base. After active duty, he continued in the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1998 with the rank of brigadier general.
Before seeking elected office, Poythress was an assistant attorney general, deputy state revenue commissioner and chairman of a study committee Gov.George Busbee appointed to tackle the thorny issue of nursing home reimbursements from Medicaid. This and his subsequent work on Medicaid led to him being nicknamed the “Mr. Fix It” of state government.
In 1979, Busbee appointed Poythress secretary of state after the death of the legendary incumbent, Ben Forston.
Poythress ran for a full term as secretary of state in 1982 but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Max Cleland, a popular, decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran who would go on to run the Veterans Admistration and serve in the U.S. Senate. Poythress took a 10-year break from politics and practiced tax law in Atlanta.
He jumped back into politics in 1992 and won a special statewide election for labor commissioner against Democratic incumbent Al Scott of Savannah. In 1994, he was elected to a full four-year term as labor commissioner.
In 1999, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Poythress to lead the Georgia Army and Air National Guard. Gov. Sonny Perdue reappointed him in 2002, promoting him to lieutenant general and making him the state’s first three-star adjutant general.
Langford said Poythress “wasn’t fluff and bluster. He was straight ahead and get the job done.” He said Poythress’ interest in politics grew out of “his love of government and his country. He believed in institutions – the military, state government, federal government, the Democratic Party and organized labor.”
“He had a work ethic that never stopped, which he also expected from everybody that was close to him,” Langford said.
Scott Holcomb, an attorney and Democratic state representative from Atlanta, said Poythress “had a heart for service, and he led by example. He cared deeply about our service members and worked hard to promote our nation’s democratic ideals.”
Poythress’ wife, Elizabeth, said her husband strived to make things better for the agencies and employees he oversaw.
“Integrity, honesty and duty before self were his guiding principles,” she said. “He was a great father, incredible grandfather, devoted husband and friend and unwavering patriot.” Poythress was on several boards and was vice chairman of the Board of the National Guard Association of the United States and a two-term chairman of the Board of the State YMCA of Georgia.
He recently worked as a consultant and adviser to international companies in the defense industry.
His survivors include his wife Elizabeth, sister Eva Higgins, son Cullen Gray Poythress, stepdaughters Candace Pinnisi and Kristin Placito, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com