Sonny Perdue: from little league to the big leagues

Beaming with hometown pride, David Davidson pulls out the Little League picture of himself and Sonny Perdue. It’s black-and-white, taken in about 1960, and it says just about everything he believes about Perdue and this place.

They’re just boys in the team photo, maybe 10 or so, showing off their clean white uniforms. Perdue is kneeling front and center, with a calm and confident smile on his face. It’s easy to imagine, looking at it years later, that he knows he’s going to have a big life.

“Whatever organization he became involved in, he ended up leading it,” said Davidson, checking off a quick list: Sunday school class, high school president, the Future Farmers of America. Then came state senator and governor.

“He was an alpha dog. He was just sharper, just smarter,” added the 67-year-old, standing outside the old White Diamond Grill off the main drag, where he and Perdue downed milkshakes as kids.

The rise of this son of central Georgia hasn’t stopped at the governor’s mansion. President Donald Trump last week tapped the 70-year-old to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Essentially, that makes him the face of rural America. People here take pride in knowing that when he speaks about farmers across this nation, he’ll often be thinking of them.

But Bonaire, where Perdue still lives and has a successful grain business, is more than just a place where tractors plow fields, cattle range on pastures and the water tower is the tallest structure around. The place is deeply tied to nearby Robins Air Force Base. A massive military installation here since the forties, Robins has grafted onto the area many of the trappings of suburban bustle, including top-tier schools, a big hospital and scads of recreation and entertainment.

The combination, people say, makes for good stock. Just look at that baseball team photo. One kid, Mike Long, went on to be county attorney. Another, Sonny Carter, became an astronaut who orbited the earth 79 times during a trip on the shuttle Discovery.

Not in the picture is another local boy who made good, David Perdue, Sonny’s cousin. He’s a millionaire businessman and junior U.S. senator from Georgia. He was also CEO of Dollar General, and there’s eight around town, one right across from the grill.

Davidson’s mom, Louise, who lives over by the railroad tracks, remembers Sonny Perdue as a youngster who worked for a time in her family’s general store. “Very polite, very mannerly,” she said. When Perdue became governor, she and about 20 family members hopped on a rented bus — carrying preserves, watermelons and frozen vegetables in a cooler — to eat a hometown dinner with him in the governor’s mansion in Atlanta.

“I don’t think you’ll find a person here who doesn’t say nice things about him,” Louise Davidson said.

Perdue’s legacy

That’s not exactly true. Just talk to Dan Jones, a man who loves Bonaire but who pulls no punches when it comes to its favorite son.

“To me he was a crook when he was a governor, and will be even more there” in Washington, said Jones, 55, who stopped for lunch at the grill while doing road construction. “He had his hands in too much real estate when he was governor.”

Perdue refused to put his business holdings in a blind trust, a break with previous governors. And his real estate transaction while in office raised eyebrows.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2006 that the governor spent $2 million on land near Disney World, bought from a developer he'd appointed to the state's economic development board in 2004. The next legislative session, a bill passed with a backdated provision allowing him to defer about $100,000 in capital gains taxes on the sale of family land that provided the money for the Florida purchase. As he campaigned for re-election, Perdue said he didn't know he would benefit from the tax break before he signed the measure into law.

Here in Houston County, Perdue’s legacy stretches back before he became the first Republican governor in Georgia since Reconstruction. His family goes back generations. His win in 2002 signaled a sea change away from Democratic dominance in state politics. Today, the state Senate and House and all the constitutional officers are Republicans.

As governor, Perdue led the state through two recessions, providing a steady hand over state finances but infuriating fellow Republicans when he vetoed tax cuts. He became immersed in a battle over whether the Confederate battle emblem should appear on the state flag.

He helped many seniors by eliminating their state income taxes on investments and pensions. And he pushed the state to investigate cheating in Atlanta schools.

If you drive about 10 miles from Bonaire, there's another example, somewhat controversial, of Perdue's legacy as governor — the Go Fish Education Center in Perry. Critics have all but labeled it Perdue's Folly.

Perdue announced his “Go Fish” plan to promote fishing tourism in the state a few months after winning re-election in 2007. “We will turn Georgia into a fisherman’s paradise,” he said at the time.

Local officials projected that 200,000 people a year would visit the center. By the time it opened in October 2010, they had scaled it back to 100,000, and five years after it opened, attendance was about one-fifth of that.

Some days there is little action at the center that sits along a quiet highway just off Interstate 75. Other days it's packed with school children. The state still owes $11 million on the place, and will be paying off the money it borrowed for the program until December 2027.

Friday afternoon, Tina Williams and her 7-year-old daughter, Tessie, enjoyed the center’s fishing and boating exhibits, especially its three alligators. And when they exited, they left the place devoid of visitors.

“Pretty empty,” said Tina Williams. To be fair, she said she saw 30 homeschoolers earlier.

Her daughter, for her part, had nothing but praise for the place, boasting how she hooked a fish from the pond. “I caught it myself,” Tessie said.

High hopes from hometown

Back in Bonaire, many people say they have high hopes for Perdue, the country and places like this.

“We need a regeneration of rural America,” Agnes Farr said. “People have forgotten that farmers are the backbone of this nation. If you can’t feed the people, you will not have a strong country.”

Inside the White Diamond Grill, which still has its faded white sign from decades long past, three generations of the Graham family were having lunch and talking about Perdue. Debbie Graham recalled that her mom did Perdue’s finances, and her sister served as his secretary.

“I’ve known Sonny all my life,” she said. “His number is in my cell phone.”

“He’s very down to earth,” added her daughter, Heather Graham, 40.

Heather’s son, Brandon Crisp, sporting a black Stetson cowboy hat, knows some of Perdue’s grandkids from school.

“I think he’ll be good for us,” said the 16-year-old. “To see him grow up here and become a high-ranking official, it’s kinda of a glowing light for us, that we could become anything we want to be.”