Connell Stafford, Coke executive, was behind-the-scenes political force

Connell Stafford was a former staff member of Sen. San Nunn's, a Coca-Cola Company executive and a political player in behind the scenes in Georgia Democratic politics.

Credit: Courtesy of family

Credit: Courtesy of family

Connell Stafford was a former staff member of Sen. San Nunn's, a Coca-Cola Company executive and a political player in behind the scenes in Georgia Democratic politics.

Most people in Georgia have never heard of Connell Stafford. And that’s the way he wanted it.

Though well known to politicians and policymakers, he preferred to stay behind the scenes, whether he was helping to elect Senator Sam Nunn, working for the Coca-Cola Company, attending a White House dinner or hosting a fundraiser for presidential candidate Al Gore.

“He never wanted credit for anything he did,” said former Georgia Congressman Buddy Darden. “Connell always wanted to stay under the radar.”

Connell Clines Stafford, Jr., 75, died of kidney failure on July 23, in Hendersonville, North Carolina, his wife Shay’s hometown. Born in Macon to Connell Clines Stafford and Chester Sheffield Stafford, Connell was a graduate of Willingham High School for Boys and of Georgia Southern University, where he later served as a member and the chair of the Foundation Board of Trustees.

After finishing college, Stafford’s first job was teaching at an elementary school in Macon. Requesting new books for his students, he went first to the principal, then to the school superintendent and finally to a state legislator. The experience sparked his interest in politics.

Stafford worked on Sam Nunn’s first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1972. “I was speaking to a group of young people in Macon, and Connell told me he would support me,” said Nunn. “I had been driving all over the state and sometimes almost falling asleep, while driving at night, so he became my driver. And my friend.”

After Nunn was elected, Stafford went with him to Washington, D.C., as his executive assistant. While in Washington, he earned a master’s in public administration from American University. He also met Shay English, whom he married in 1975. The Staffords returned to Atlanta in 1978 so Connell could manage Nunn’s re-election campaign, which was successful.

After Nunn was re-elected, Stafford joined Coca-Cola’s government affairs team, though he stayed in close touch with the senator and his staff.

Stafford told Nunn about his first day on the job. Wearing a sport coat, slacks, a dress shirt and a tie, Stafford went to meet company president Robert Woodruff, and the two talked for a while. As he was leaving, Stafford asked Woodruff if he had any advice to share. “And he said, ‘When you get your first Coca-Cola paycheck, go buy yourself a suit,’ “Nunn said. “Apparently, Mr. Woodruff didn’t like sport coats.”

During the second Nunn campaign, Stafford met Keith Mason — a high school student working for Nunn — and they became friends. The two men stayed in close contact — Stafford nurtured his many friendships. In 1982, Mason was an intern at Coca-Cola in Stafford’s department before starting law school. He introduced Mason to Twinker Burton, whom he would marry, believing they would hit it off. “He advised me on all of my major decisions personally, politically and professionally for a long time,” Mason said. “He had good instincts when it came to human nature.”

After spending 25 years at Coca-Cola, Stafford became the director of public strategics at Troutman Pepper Strategies, part of the law firm known as Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP. Several years later the Staffords moved to Hendersonville to be closer to their two daughters and their families. Connell liked spending time tending his apple orchard.

“Connell certainly had a wry sense of humor, but he never belittled or denigrated anyone,” said Buddy Darden. “And he always looked out for problems, trying never to leave anything to chance.”

Stafford served as trustee of Brevard College, Holy Innocents Episcopal School, the Little White House Foundation, the Jekyll Island Foundation, Friends of Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, and Smithgall Woods Foundation. He also belonged to the Gridiron Secret Society and Leadership Georgia. His wife and he were longtime members of Peachtree Presbyterian Church.

Connell Stafford, 75 is survived by his wife Shay English Stafford, their daughters Jenna and Ali, his brother Mark Stafford, two grandsons and numerous nieces and nephews.

A Memorial Service is set for Thursday, Sept. 7, at 2 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, 766 N. Main St., Hendersonville, North Carolina. A celebration of life for family and friends will be held Thursday, Aug. 10, 4 to 6 p.m. at the Capital City Club at Brookhaven in Atlanta. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Stafford Scholars Honors Program Scholarship at Georgia Southern University, 1332 Southern Dr., Statesboro, GA 30458, or to the fund for a meditation chapel at St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville.