Meet the rural attorney who is now the Georgia House’s top Democrat

State Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, is now the top Democrat in Georgia’s House. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
State Rep. Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville, is now the top Democrat in Georgia’s House. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

To say that state Rep. Bob Trammell cuts a low profile in the General Assembly is an understatement.

He has never carried major legislation, is rarely heard on the airwaves or seen in print and had only taken to the House’s well-worn podium a handful of times, largely to rail against campus gun legislation.

But now the Luthersville attorney is the leading Democrat in the House after a surprising victory over better-known rivals to succeed Stacey Abrams. It's one of the most prominent posts at the statehouse and was a steppingstone for his two predecessors — Abrams and DuBose Porter — to run for governor.

It’s also one of the most challenging. Trammell must corral his fractious caucus’ 62 members, raise loads of cash to defend imperiled incumbents and flip vulnerable GOP seats. Most importantly, he’ll lead the group’s decisions about when to compromise with ruling Republicans — and when to fight them.

At first glance, he’s an unlikely pick for the post. The soft-spoken 43-year-old is one of a dwindling number of white Democrats left in the chamber and one of the few House lawmakers in truly competitive seats. Trump narrowly carried his district in November; he is one of just two House Democrats holding seats that the president won.

But Trammell, who won a 6-point victory over a challenger in November, has positioned himself as a voice who can help revive the deteriorating coalition of rural, working-class voters who once formed the party’s backbone with the diverse, mostly black electorate that now forms the Democratic base.

“We have real opportunity as a caucus. We have incredible talent, and we’re a cross section of Georgia,” he said. “We just want to help move the state forward.”

His passion for politics was sparked by a crisis. His hometown — population 800, give or take a few dozen — was deeply in debt, under investigation and on the verge of losing a charter that dated to 1872.

His father, Robert Trammell Sr., a longtime college professor, had retired to Luthersville in 1999 expecting to live out his days in the small-town splendor. Instead, he wound up running for mayor, leading the town’s turnaround. He served until his death in July 2016, inspiring his son to follow his lead.

Armed with a law degree from the University of Virginia, Trammell clerked two years with a federal judge and later joined the King & Spalding mega-firm as an associate before returning home in 2003. The next year he launched an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate — he lost to Republican Seth Harp — then settled down to start a practice and a family.

He saw his opening in 2014 when Carl Von Epps, a long-serving Democrat, decided not to stand for another term. Trammell defeated Republican Gene King to take the seat, and he got a fast introduction to the Georgia Legislature during a busy 2015. He said he quickly learned what kind of inertia drives the agenda at the 40-day session.

Georgia patients, medical workers, hospital officials and taxpayers on all sides of the issue have lived with anxiety for months as Washington Republicans’ tried to repeal the federal health care law known as Obamacare.

“If the momentum is rolling in a certain direction, it’s incredibly difficult to stop, slow down or reverse the momentum,” he said. “And I don’t know if I had that kind of appreciation going into that.”

He steered far from the spotlight during his early days under the Gold Dome even as other Democrats raised their profiles fighting GOP initiatives or pushing their own platforms. That changed when Abrams stepped down as minority leader to focus on her bid for governor, leaving a tempting opening.

He faced two opponents with bigger names: state Rep. Carolyn Hugley of Columbus, who was Abrams' close friend and top deputy; and state Rep. Winfred Dukes of Albany, a frequent critic of Abrams' leadership style. Hugley and Dukes had both served decades in the Legislature.

With a steady vow to “reflect the will of the caucus,” Trammell pulled off the surprise upset, defeating Hugley by a 32-24 margin in the second round. He’s spent the weeks since that July victory reaching out to House members on both sides of the contest and preparing for next year’s battles.

Like Abrams before him, Trammell said he’s willing to cut deals with Republicans where there’s common ground. That could be pivotal during next year’s session, when Republican leaders may need help passing education and health care initiatives that could alienate some conservatives. But Trammell said he’ll draw a firm line between compromise and capitulation.

“If there’s a solution that works, and if our members support it, we’re going to be a part of that conversation,” Trammell said, describing his strategy. “But if there’s legislation that’s going to hurt Georgians and our constituents, simply taking bad legislation and making it hurt a little less — we’re not going to be in that business.”

He’s an unabashed supporter of the expansion of Medicaid — he calls it a “moral imperative” — and remains fiercely opposed to the measure Gov. Nathan Deal signed this year that legalizes guns on many parts of public college campuses. He also said he will push for an overhaul of the state’s aging voting system, a multimillion-dollar effort that could also play a key role in the 2018 campaign for governor.

As one of the highest-ranking Democrats in Georgia, his new clout will be tested far beyond the Gold Dome. Democrats hope to flip a range of seats next year, which means recruiting credible candidates and raising cash. Trammell has his work cut out for him: He collected about $100,000 in the past election cycle; Abrams raised about four times as much.

He’s also not likely to command the type of attention that gave Abrams a national profile — and earned her a coveted speaking slot at last year’s Democratic National Convention. If anything, Trammell said he’s willing to shirk the spotlight and “spread the labor” on policy initiatives and other priorities.

“We’re going to make sure we are advancing the Democratic argument on the big issues that are facing our state,” he said. “Whether that be in the well, taking the message out of Atlanta — we want to make sure there’s no ambiguity about where we stand. Our members are our strength.”


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