Left to right, state Rep. Tommy Benton (photo: Bob Andres/AJC) and Gwinnett County Commissioner Tommy Hunter (photo: Henry Taylor/AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: A Tale of Two Troublesome Tommys 

State Reb. Tommy Benton, Tommy ‘Racist Pig’ Hunter

It has been a bad run of late for The Tommys, a couple of foot-in-the mouth Georgia pols who are being abandoned and spanked by their Republican compatriots.

The Tommys — Hunter and Benton — are a public example that words do matter, even in this environment of toxic public discourse where every numbskull has an opinion and is damned sure to let you hear it.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

Tommy Hunter, of course, is the Gwinnett County commish who called civil rights legend and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig.” Also, what may be a better barometer of his ham-headed disdain was that he, in effect, called half the voters in his demographically diverse district “libtards” and “Demon-rats.”

Last week, Hunter’s four fellow Gwinnett commissioners all voted to reprimand him and issue statements scolding him. Tommy backers have griped about it, saying political correctness has run amok — although the idea of public officials respecting the public seems to be forgotten in the shouting.

The other Tommy — Benton — is a retired teacher and veteran legislator who still hasn’t gotten over the fact that the Boys in Gray lost the War of Northern Aggression.

Benton hails from Jefferson, a burg 70 miles northeast of Atlanta and a place whose city website touts itself as “older, wealthier, less diverse, and better educated than the state of Georgia as a whole.” (Jackson County, where Jefferson sits, is 83 percent white.)

Anyways, Benton recently lost his House committee chairmanship and his appointment to a post where he was helping mold the impressionable minds of Georgia youths.

His misdeed? He just wouldn’t let go of old-fashioned notions when it came to the Rebs, slavery, the KKK and MLK.

In the end, Speaker David Ralston just grew tired of following Benton with a pooper scooper.

I must say, I’ve grown to have grudging modicums of respect at The Tommys’ refusal to back off their opinions in the face of overwhelming public criticism. But those feelings are overridden by their obstinate wrong-headedness.

Where to start with Benton?

He was one of three state reps to vote against erecting a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the state Capitol grounds, although he opposed moving the statue of virulent racist Tom Watson from that same property. He recently said he doesn’t want his name on the MLK plaque with 235 other legislators.

Benton’s reasoning on the MLK stance was that the civil rights icon was not elected. And with regard to Watson, Benton said you shouldn’t try to rewrite history.

He’s right. Watson, a state lawmaker, congressman and U.S. senator who also dislike Catholics and Jews, was representative of his time. He came to prominence in the late 1800s, and his statue was dedicated in 1932.

Watson’s history doesn’t need to be erased — or his statue even moved across the street. But an additional plaque telling the rest of his story, sordid details and all, should have been erected.

Republican state Rep. Tommy Benton mailed this article to fellow House members. (photo: CONTRIBUTED)

But rewriting the history of the Confederacy as the noble and virtuous “Lost Cause” has been a Southern tradition since Tommy Benton’s granddaddy was knee-high to a boll weevil.

Now he’s unhappy that many of those myths are eroding and falling into disfavor.

Last year, Benton pushed a bill that would require state street names changed since 1968, the year MLK was killed, to revert to their past names if they honored a veteran.

That would mean Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive would again be Gordon Road, honoring Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, who was also a U.S. senator and a Klan leader.

In defense of his bill, Benton said the KKK “made a lot of people straighten up.”

The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Trust me, was his implicit message, I taught history for 30 years.

His bills went nowhere. This year he was back, pushing April as Confederate History Month. His resolution referred to the Civil War as the “four-year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control.”

Somehow he forgot to add “lower taxes.”

He refused to acknowledge slavery as part of the Confederacy’s states’ rights package, batting away a query about it at a press conference, saying “Next question.”

Gwinnett Commissioners unanimously approved Tommy Hunter's public reprimand, but now he's suing the county over the ethics board.

This month, Speaker Ralston named Benton and two other Republicans (because it is a well-known fact that Dems don’t know history) to a three-person panel to study ways of “furthering Georgia’s students’ civic literacy.”

When eyebrows raised at Benton being put on the panel, Ralston’s office stood up for the legislator, saying he was a veteran history teacher.

I also believe some Ralston loyalty for Benton was behind it. In 2008, Benton stuck his neck out when Ralston led a revolt against then-Speaker Glenn Richardson. Benton was one of just 25 Republicans voting for Ralston (as opposed to 75 Richardsonites).

A year later, Richardson imploded with personal problems and Ralston took over. So one, given Benton’s former support, one can see how Ralston would continue giving Benton more rope. That is, enough rope for Benton to keep hanging himself.

And Benton did just that. A couple of weeks ago, legislators, including Ralston, got packages sent to them with an article: “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States.”

Finally, Ralston, tired of dealing with him, meted out punishment.

I called Wes Lewis, a 26-year-old insurance agent who last year ran a quixotic primary campaign against Benton in the Republican primary. He lost 73-27 percent.

“He actually taught my dad,” said Lewis. “He still sees it as his job to educate and now he has another platform.

“But now those battles are being lost all around him and he sees a world changing all around him. He still thinks he can change people’s minds.”

That’s the problem for Benton. Minds HAVE been changing.

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