Former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, a GOP pioneer in Georgia, dies at 74

Mac Collins, who represented a Middle Georgia district in the U.S. House for 12 years, died Tuesday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Special to the AJC)

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Mac Collins, who represented a Middle Georgia district in the U.S. House for 12 years, died Tuesday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Special to the AJC)

Former Congressman Mac Collins, a truck driver-turned-lawmaker who helped build Georgia’s Republican Party, died Tuesday, according to several GOP officials. He was 74.

Collins was a plain-speaking country boy famous for colorful anecdotes who represented a Macon-based U.S. House district from 1992 until 2004. He stepped down to run for Zell Miller’s old U.S. Senate seat, a contest he lost in the GOP primary to Johnny Isakson, his stylistic opposite.

The cause of death was not immediately known, but several friends said he started the day working on his family farm.

“Mac was a dedicated public servant. He was a hard worker,” said Bo Bryant, his former chief of staff. “Like he used to say, he was a graduate of the university of hard knocks.”

Collins hailed from Flovilla, a town that at the time of his birth in 1944 was home to about 240 people and was best known as a fueling and watering station for steam engines on the Southern Railroad. He skipped college to start his own trucking company, driving a beat-up vehicle during the day that he would patch up at night.

“It was tough,” Collins said in a 2003 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You start a business with wore-out equipment and no money, just debt.”

His wife, Julie, worked beside him in the business’ early days, answering phones, keeping the books and even helping load trucks on occasion. The company eventually took off, and Collins hauled timber for Georgia-Pacific and dabbled in the grocery and automobile businesses.

Collins’ interest in politics was first sparked when his mother, Bessie, won a seat on the City Council despite having only a fifth-grade education. He won a seat on the Butts County Commission in 1976 on his third try — as a Democrat. But he eventually switched parties, becoming the county’s first GOP chairman in 1981.

Republicans were still a rarity in rural Georgia in those days, and Collins was soundly defeated in his first run for the state Senate in 1984 and again in 1986.

“My friends told me if I had run as a Democrat I would have won, and I would have,” he previously told the AJC.

The third time once again proved to be the charm, and he was elected to the statehouse in 1988, becoming one of only 11 Republicans serving in the chamber at the time. He won his U.S. House seat four years later, just ahead of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.

“He was a pioneering leader of the Republican Party in Georgia, joining at a time that there were no Republicans in power in Georgia,” said state Sen. David Shafer, who in 1992 was the executive director of the state GOP.

In his six terms in the House, Collins served on the Intelligence and tax-writing Ways and Means committees. He quickly became known to GOP leaders for his knack for translating Congress’ byzantine policy moves into language non-Washington types could understand.

“Mac never lost the common touch and his ability to connect with regular working folks. He sort of prided himself on that, and it was certainly true,” said Skin Edge, who served with Collins in the Georgia Senate and went on to become the chamber’s GOP leader.

Collins’ straight-talking sensibilities were also frequently on display on the campaign trail, where he would often carry a broom. The prop was used to underscore his pledge to clean up Washington.

He also had a stubborn streak.

The Republican didn’t concede the U.S. Senate race, nor his narrowly unsuccessful comeback bid against then-U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall in 2006.

“You never didn’t know where he stood on something,” said Brandon Phillips, a family friend and GOP operative. “He may be quiet at first when listening, but then he’d make his opinion known and he wasn’t very shy about it.”

Collins eschewed many of Congress’ perks out of solidarity for his blue-collar constituents. He chose to forgo his lawmaker pension plan, saying that if Social Security was good enough for everybody else, it would also work for him.

“His philosophy was that Congress should not be a retirement plan,” Bryant said.

He also regularly returned portions of his office operating budget to the Treasury, according to former top aide Mike Joyce, and frequently arrived at the office around 5 a.m. to begin the workday. A few savvy constituents caught onto that fact and would call in early for the chance to speak to the congressman directly.

After leaving Washington, Collins continued to stay active politically while keeping up his farm near Jackson. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to the state Board of Corrections in 2014.

His funeral will be 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25 at Rock Springs Church, 219 Rock Springs Road, Milner. Visitation will be the two hours before the service at the church. Haisten Funeral Home in Jackson is handling arrangements.

Collins is survived by his wife, four adult children, a dozen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, including his namesake, Denver Mac Collins.

Many of Collins’ former GOP colleagues took to social media Tuesday to honor the lawmaker’s legacy.

"Mac and I served in Congress together and I admired his leadership and dedication," tweeted Deal, who also ordered flags at the state Capitol and in Butts County to fly at half-staff on Friday and through the weekend. "With heavy hearts, @GAFirstLady and I offer our condolences to his loved ones and join in remembering his service to Georgia."

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp touted Collins’ “incredible legacy of service.”

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Mac Collins

Story corrected on 11/26/18 to reflect the number of Collins’ great-grandchildren.