State Sen. Michael Williams is not a political bomb-thrower. Grenade launcher may be the more apt description.
The Cumming Republican has carved a reputation for himself in the Georgia governor’s race with one attention-grabbing position after another.
He raffled off a deadly device after it was used in a mass shooting. He enlisted a TV reality star, “Dog” the Bounty Hunter, to promote his call for increased police pay. And he led a protest against a teacher who told a student to leave her classroom because he was wearing a T-shirt supporting President Donald Trump.
Even his plunge into the race for governor was designed for maximum impact: He claimed that just before his speech, an unnamed official dangled an offer of a primo committee chairmanship if he stayed out of the race. (His colleagues laughed out loud at the claim; one said Williams must have been dreaming.)
And at every step of the way, he’s proclaimed himself as Trump’s most ardent champion in Georgia politics.
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The first state official to endorse the president, back in late 2015, he’s pledged to drain Atlanta’s version of the “swamp,” hired a former Trump campaign strategist to run his campaign and stood by every one of the president’s positions — even when it meant alienating some of his party’s base.
Consider the scene in Savannah, where he drew murmurs from a room full of longtime GOP activists when he endorsed Trump’s plan to open Georgia’s coast to offshore drilling. He was unapologetic.
“For over 30 years, Republicans have fought for offshore drilling,” he told them. “We now have a president, in President Trump, who is willing to fight for that. We have the opportunity to become a world leader in energy.”
His opponents largely dismiss him — Lt. Gov. Cagle, the GOP front-runner, has tried to shrug off his attacks at some forums — and most polls show him in the basement. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News survey showed him with just 3 percent of support from likely GOP voters.
Still, he insists that his standing is higher than it seems, and his allies say his fervent base of support makes him the perfect foil.
He’s dumped more than $1 million of his own funds into his campaign, and he has sparred on cable TV shows over some of the state’s biggest debates. He puts his cellphone number on campaign materials, and his campaign seems always ready with a biting quote.
And he’s undercut attempts to paint him as a one-dimensional figure by aggressively seeking laxer medical marijuana rules and more mental health resources — positioning himself as a champion of families struggling with debilitating diseases.
Those policies were influenced by a childhood that was shaped by his father’s mental health struggles.
Donald Williams suffered from manic depression and violent mood swings dating to his time serving in the Vietnam War, and his son believes he suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Williams was 7, his father tried to kill the family and himself. When Williams was 14, his father committed suicide while the son and wife were at a church camp. It sent Williams into spirals of self-doubt and self-loathing.
He tells crowds he recovered thanks to his devout faith and work ethic. He likes to tell the story of practicing to run the hurdles as a high school senior in rural Alabama. The school only had the resources for three hurdles, and he perfected the art of jumping over each.
But during an early competition, the first he ran on a track with a full set of hurdles, he remembers stumbling after clipping the fourth obstacle — and then getting back up and finishing the race. He likes to credit that experience with teaching him the perseverance he needed in business and politics.
He launched into a career at the accounting firm Arthur Anderson but quickly grew bored of corporate life. He wound up snapping up a string of Sport Clips franchises. Selling them made him a wealthy man — records show his net worth tops $9 million — and he funneled some of that cash into his first political race.
A new platform
His target in that 2014 contest was a Republican incumbent, state Sen. Jack Murphy, who had become a powerful figure in a staunchly conservative Cumming-based district. Williams pumped more than $300,000 of his own cash into the race, painting his opponent as a shadowy supporter of the status quo.
During that contest, court filings filed by his ex-wife as part of divorce hearings surfaced that included allegations that he attempted suicide and squandered money on prostitutes and strippers. He denies the claims, and he notes a judge backed him in the custody battle.
He struggled to gain clout in a Republican-controlled Senate that emphasizes longevity and loyalty. Many saw him as a sideshow who made promises he couldn’t follow through on.
“He wants to lead the voters on and the media on,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Cagle backer who scoffed at Williams after he struggled through a press conference. “It’s fluff. And it’s not very good fluff.”
But Trump’s ascendance helped him gain currency among a new wave of voters. He trekked to Utah days before the 2016 vote to help rally fellow Mormons to Trump’s side, and he stumped across Georgia to back the New York businessman.
When Trump won an upset victory over Hillary Clinton, Williams shifted his aim from secretary of state to a bigger prize. And he seemed determined to leverage his state Senate seat for maximum impact.
He pushed legislation that would outlaw abortion as early as six weeks, cut state taxes and and adopt a “religious liberty” proposal similar to the measure that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016. None of his proposals gained any traction, giving him a chance to blame Cagle and other GOP leaders for their demise.
And just about every morning lawmakers convened, Williams went to the center of the chamber to tout one of his policies or rail against Cagle, who was often standing within earshot of the attack. Much of the time, his colleagues pointedly ignored him. But Williams welcomed the awkward image.
Asked at one debate what word best described him, Williams didn’t hesitate: “fearless.”