WOODBINE — Before anybody ever called it “Trump County,” long before state Rep. Jason Spencer screamed the N-word on cable television and made people wonder what to call it, this part of the state used to just be Southeast Georgia.
You could go to Waycross and slide through the black water of the Okefenokee Swamp. You could catch a boat in St. Mary’s and go see the wild horses on Cumberland Island. On a Saturday night at the Woodbine Opry, you could watch old couples slow dance to George Jones songs and holler in surprise when their number comes up in the cake raffle.
Spencer’s blood-red Georgia House District 180 is the same Tuesday morning as it was a day earlier, when news spread of the lawmaker’s display on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?” The Showtime show had aired Sunday night and featured Spencer, a Woodbine Republican with an already complex reputation, shouting the N-word, mocking Chinese people and exposing his buttocks during what he thought was a self-defense training exercise against terrorists.
Spencer said he fell for the show’s prank because of paralyzing fear his family would be attacked. He said he had received death threats after proposing a bill that would’ve placed limits on where women could wear burkas last year.
The lawmaker’s national humiliation — the story is spreading from coast to coast in the country’s biggest media outlets — didn’t change the district, but the news permeates. Of the nearly dozen people asked Tuesday morning, only one hadn’t heard of the situation.
Outside First Baptist Church of Harrietts Bluff, down the street from Spencer’s home in a gated community, Matthew Lee, 40, was helping with yard work and talking with the other men about the situation.
“I don’t like or agree with the things said. I don’t like it,” Lee, who retired from the U.S. Air Force, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But everybody is a person and has skeletons.”
He hopes people won’t see Southeast Georgia differently because of Spencer: “It doesn't represent a whole community, a whole area, just because one person did something.”
At Camden Bicycle Center in St. Mary’s, Donald Bailey, a 71-year-old black man in a county that is 75 percent white, said he was shocked. Not at what Spencer did and said, but at the fact that so many people are shocked.
“I don’t have my head in the sand as if racism doesn’t exist,” Bailey, who retired from Anheuser-Busch, said. “It was hidden below the surface.”
What brought it out?
Bailey thinks President Donald Trump’s statements have emboldened people to feel that it’s okay to express racist views.
Spencer also brought up Trump in his statement apologizing for his Showtime appearance and explaining how he was tricked into behaving so outlandishly.
“This media company’s deceptive and fraudulent behavior is exactly why President Donald Trump was elected,” he said. “They exploited my state of mind for profit and notoriety.”
Several people voting at the polling place by the rep’s home in Tuesday’s run-off said they wanted to forget about Spencer and move on to more pressing issues to the community, since he’d already lost his seat earlier this year.
Steven Sainz, the young Republican who beat Spencer in the primary, took news of the TV show as affirmation.
“When I decided to challenge Jason Spencer to be the next State Representative for our region,” Sainz wrote on Facebook, “it was largely to provide our district with an alternative to someone whose history of inflammatory actions and rhetoric were not representative of our values and priorities.”
While Spencer’s been familiar with criticism, he’s also drawn praise for such actions as pushing the Hidden Predator Act, which allowed alleged victims of sex abuse to sue decades after the statute of limitations ran out. Over in Ware County, he brushed off criticism from local officials and called for a public health investigation after four children were diagnosed with rare cancers in summer 2015.
Haylee Metts, whose 6-year-old daughter Raylee was among the four and died in 2016, was devastated and confounded by Spencer’s display on Showtime.
“I am just lost for words,” the mother said. “Shocked and just cant even put any words together. He has been a great supporter and advocate for us. I'm just completely shocked.”
Spencer has declined calls to resign and intends to be in office until his term expires before the next legislative session.
But he still has to live with what he’s done and live here.
Can he live this down?
It may be too soon to tell, but Lee had a potentially prophetic thought, one especially relevant today: when things like this happen, people who agree with a politician are willing to find a rationale to look the other way, and those who don’t like the man won’t let it slide.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.