Houston County divided as Nunn and Perdue fight for Senate

Few folks were paying more attention to last month’s Senate runoff than the people of Houston County. The outcome meant that two of their most prominent families, both with enduring legacies in middle Georgia, are squaring off in a nationally watched contest for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Saxby Chambliss.

The family seats of Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue sit just a few miles from each other in Houston County, and though both live elsewhere, their families have left indelible imprints on the region. Residents here are both tickled and torn that their county is suddenly at the heart of the bitter November race.

From the museum celebrating the accomplishments of Michelle Nunn's father, former Sen. Sam Nunn, in a stately Perry administration building to the elementary school named after Perdue's father on the outskirts of Warner Robins, both families have bonds here so deep that many residents are deeply conflicted.

“I’m a mess down here with the ties we have to the Perdues and Nunns,” said Larry Walker, a Perry attorney who was once the Majority Leader of Georgia’s House. “It’s a big county now, a lot bigger when they were growing up. But their ties are still everywhere.”

There’s also a certain amount of pride. Georgia’s political gravity has inexorably shifted to the northern - and more populous - third of the state as the GOP rose to power. Many are simply happy that Houston, which sits just south of Macon, is at the nexus of the Senate contest. Even if they want no part in picking sides.

Patty Johnson owns the New Perry Hotel - whose name belies its 1925 origins - which once routinely hosted former President Jimmy Carter and prominent members of the Perdue and Nunn clans. She proudly proclaims it a “bipartisan hotel.”

“People are talking about the race,” she said with a smile. “But I’m staying out of politics - bad for business.”

Two families, deep roots

Michelle Nunn’s grandfather, Sam Nunn Sr., was a mayor of Perry whose sprawling farm is still a well-known landmark. Her father was head of the local Chamber of Commerce before winning a spot in the state House and, later, a surprising 1972 victory over a Democratic appointee to the U.S. Senate.

The Nunn family farmhouse still hosts an annual festival that attracts hundreds from the community and locals boast that their church was once home to a rare triumvirate: A U.S. senator, a sitting House member (former Rep. Richard Ray) and Walker, the long-time state House bigwig. Sam Nunn is still a regular presence here, though Michelle lives in east Atlanta.

David Perdue's family also left a mark on the community. His father, David Sr., was a local principal and then superintendent of Houston County schools for almost 20 years until his 1980 retirement. He helped shepherd the community through the tumult of integration and booming growth. Today, a shiny elementary school here bears his name.

His cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, left his own imprint on his home county. He backed the Go Fish Georgia program near the end of his second term that included a fishing education center just outside of Perry. Georgia borrowed $14 million to float the initiative, which spawned skepticism from critics who see it as a boondoggle and a defense from locals who cherish its economic impact.

Many of Perdue’s relatives still live in tiny Bonaire, an unincorporated town on the northern edge of the county, though the candidate lives in a Sea Island community on Georgia’s coast. Long-timers here don’t hesitate to tick off their deep connections with both families.

Gwen Mitchell owns McDonald’s Horse Supply & Western Store, a Bonaire shop where the former governor went to buy the boots he sported at the statehouse. Even she isn’t laying her cards on the table.

“It’s a conservative part of the state, and I’d say most people are leaning toward David,” said Mitchell, who has lived here for almost 50 years. “But most of us believe who you vote for is your business.”

In the rambling building next door is the White Diamond Grill, where chefs have served grilled hamburgers and pork sandwiches since 1949. It is here where David Perdue first brought ad guru Fred Davis to give him a taste of his hometown when he was hired to tell his story to the masses, and a campaign spot was later filmed here.

Its owner, Kerry Jay, is an unabashed Perdue supporter. But the choice didn’t come easy.

“Sam was a great senator and he represented us so well. But I don’t know that people here know his daughter as well,” she said, pointing to the busy street outside her restaurant. “David used to live right down here. My husband and Sam knew each other well and one of my daughters interned for him. So it’s been difficult.”

She paused, and then added:

“Look, Michelle is delightful. But friendships go back so far here, a lot of people are torn. Both are wonderful people, but Sonny’s dad used to come up here everyday.”

A broader debate

The debate in Houston County is playing out amid a larger contest between Nunn and Perdue that could decide the control of the U.S. Senate. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats, and losing one held by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss could be devastating to their chances.

Both carve out significant time to campaign in the county. Nunn last week met with business leaders in Warner Robins to discuss the future of the nearby Robins Air Force Base, the county’s economic hub. And Perdue often squeezes in some campaigning after visits with his mother and mother-in-law, who both live in the region.

Perdue, who emerged from a crowded primary thanks partly to a tide of anti-Washington rhetoric, is highlighting his background as a former Fortune 500 executive who wants to shake up the status quo by bringing business experience and a promise of term limits. He casts Nunn as an appendage of a “failed” Democratic establishment.

Nunn, a nonprofit executive who faced light opposition in her primary, is pitching herself as a consensus-builder with a rich history of bridging divides that would come in handy in gridlocked Washington. She’s questioned Perdue’s business record, but the rhetoric has yet to turn as nasty as it did during the GOP primary.

That will surely change. And as November nears, people like Walker, the former state House leader, will be put on the spot. He's a longtime Democrat from a bygone era when the party ruled the state, but he isn't choosing sides yet in the contest.

“The Nunns and Perdues are both good people. They are smart, upright and honest. Sam Nunn should have been the president of the United States in my opinion,” he said. “But politics is sometimes about luck - being at the right place at the right time.”

He sighed as he brushed a hand through his hair.

“This is not easy for a lot of people,” he added. “Especially not people here.”