When Tracy Maddux began his campaign to be Chattooga County’s magistrate judge 22 years ago, just about everyone he knew and trusted told him he’d better run as a Democrat.
He’s secured five more terms since then, winning comfortably as a Democrat even as the county became more reliably Republican. And he remained a Democrat until last week, when he and three other elected officials bolted the local party, leaving it in disarray.
No, it wasn’t the liberal positions by White House hopefuls that triggered Maddux’s decision, though they didn’t help. He switched parties in the aftermath of a recent white supremacist rally in Dahlonega, when the local sheriff was targeted for criticism over a poorly worded social media post.
“The party has changed so much now, it’s really hard to tell where the lines are some days,” the judge said in an interview in his office. “But that Facebook controversy put me over the top. Sometimes you just have to make a stand — and you’ve got to own your decision.”
The four defections shook up politics in a rural northwest Georgia county where Democrats held surprising sway in local matters, even as Republicans dominate in state and federal elections. In a front-page article, The Summerville News said the exodus “shattered” the Democrats’ century-long grip on county affairs.
Jason Winters, the sole county commissioner in Chattooga, doesn't disagree with that assessment. He won two terms as a Democrat before he was ousted from the local party in 2014. His crime: He was photographed putting up signs for Republican state Sen. Jeff Mullis and then-Gov. Nathan Deal.
“I happily became a Republican, and I’ll run again in 2020 as a Republican,” he said, laughing now about the controversy, before conversation shifted to more recent developments.
“It’s an extremely small county. Our relationships are strong. We all know each other,” he said. “But things here have definitely changed.”
It started with a post from Chattooga County Sheriff Mark Schrader shortly after his department helped police a rally in downtown Dahlonega organized by white supremacist activists. A few dozen showed up in support of the rally, along with three times as many counterprotesters and about 600 law enforcement officers.
Schrader posted a Facebook picture of himself and three other armed-to-the-teeth deputies with this caption: "Doing our part to help our friends in Lumpkin County (Dahlonega) with the antifa protests," read the post, which made no mention of the white supremacists.
He soon took down the post and apologized, but not before it attracted national attention and hundreds of comments — including some who criticized his officers and their families. Schrader said in an interview that many of the most threatening posts came from Democrats who assumed he was Republican.
"The weekend ushered along a decision I'd been pondering for a long time," said Schrader, who left the Democratic Party days later. "There's a lot of hate spewed out there. Words don't typically bother me, but when you start threatening my employees and their families — I can't handle that."
He was the fourth in a string of officials to leave the party, along with Maddux, Clerk of Courts Kim James and Tax Commissioner Joy Hampton.
Some Democrats with deep roots in the community accused the four of seeking an excuse to leave the fold. J.L. Biddle, a Chattooga native and chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, said he didn’t regret his searing public criticism of Schrader’s remarks.
“Words matter. Inferences matter. Denouncing hate, whether directly stated or inferred, should be a nonpartisan issue,” Biddle said.
“The public officials leaving the Democratic Party simply seized an opportunity,” Biddle said. “True Democrats who believe in our all-inclusive platform do not simply leave our party due to the sharing of a social media post. True Democrats call out and fight against hate.”
The Chattooga County Democratic Party, meanwhile, tried to stem the revolt with a statement that said its members didn't "share the post or comment on the post."
“It’s been a mess, that’s for sure,” said Brandon Gurley, the party’s chairman.
‘Honest and fair’
That Chattooga County, home to about 25,000 residents, is so open to Democratic politicians may come as a shock to many. After all, Gov. Brian Kemp won Chattooga last year with 80% of the vote, and no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the county since Bill Clinton in 1996.
But the county has a long history of influential Democratic leaders that helped sway local politics, including James "Sloppy" Floyd, a powerful legislator who served 21 years in the Georgia House; Barbara Massey Reece, a former lawmaker known for her advocacy for veterans; and Bobby Lee Cook, a nationally known defense attorney who hangs his shingle in downtown Summerville.
The knack for ticket-splitting helped cultivate an environment where Democrats reigned. Before last week’s exodus, seven countywide officials were Democrats, including the probate judge, the coroner and one of four school board members.
That might be over now. Maddux has said he would run for another term as a Republican, while the other three haven’t said whether they planned to join the GOP. Another Democrat, Probate Judge Jon Payne, won’t stand for another term for the first time since he was elected in 1975 at the age of 26.
“We’ve gradually seen this coming. We’ve seen a swing,” said Eddy Willingham, the local GOP chairman. “But I wouldn’t say it was a cause for celebration. We’re not rejoicing that the other side is losing. I cheer for my team. I don’t root against the other team.”
Still, Maddux said local Democrats will continue to struggle with the national brand.
“The Chattooga County Democratic Party is not the Democratic National Committee. They don’t represent that. These folks are hardworking, old-school Democrats who really don’t like to play politics,” Maddux said. “But I’m going where my values today are most reflected.”
That’s a problem Hampton, the county tax commissioner, is still wrestling with even though she left the Democratic Party.
After years of working in local government, she ran for the county post in 2016 as a Democrat because she was promised the party would help her run a clean campaign. She won by nine votes — and has struggled with whether to change her party affiliation since then.
“I’ve debated it back and forth for a while but felt OK with where I was. But I finally got to a point where I was sick of national politics playing in,” Hampton said. “And my poor little mama would tell you I’ve never been one to do what the crowd says.”
That becomes clear after a few minutes in her cozy office, painted yellow and cluttered with papers. She talked of the time she dropped an extra letter in her name to masquerade as “Joey” in elementary school to try out for the football team — she was quickly caught — and she pointed, admiringly, to a painting of her grandfather on the wall.
“It’s hard. I’m either kin to, or I know, everybody here. It’s really hard to choose sides,” she said, pressed on whether she would join the GOP or run as an independent next year.
“My grandfather always said, ‘Honest and fair,’ ” Hampton said. “Right now, I’m leaning to fair — I don’t want to do my job based on political affiliations.”