Perdue combines a common touch with an uncommon resume

His home is over the causeway and behind security gates in Sea Island, but at the moment, David Perdue is digging into a Chick-fil-A sandwich with an added packet of mayo.

The Republican businessman seeking to become Georgia’s next U.S. senator throws his hands up at the question of his portrayal as a cloistered multimillionaire, gesturing to his fast-food surroundings.

“My mom and dad were schoolteachers,” Perdue said. “This (accusation) of I was born on third base or I’m an elitist, it just hasn’t stuck. This accent is real.”

Perdue recalled as CEO at Dollar General helping low-income customers make it to their next paycheck by stocking smaller containers of bleach. Dollar General recruited him, he said, because he has “this common man’s affinity.”

He's deploying it in his quest for the Senate as a first-time candidate, using his down-home demeanor to defuse the constant bombs from Democrat Michelle Nunn that Perdue is out of touch, and he works crowds at barbecues and tailgates with zeal.

And yet Perdue presents himself as a man apart, unique for his high-level business experience to tackle the national debt. In his stump speech, the debt is the “full-blown crisis, y’all” that inspired him to run.

Perdue's net worth is between $13.7 million and $39.8 million, according to federally required disclosures that list a range of values. That would make him the 10th-richest senator, according to a tabulation by Roll Call. He lives in an ultra-exclusive corner of Sea Island called Ocean Forest that is marked simply with a gate and a "private" sign.

Still, friends say he is the same guy they grew up with, the natural leader in small-town Warner Robins who spent his summers toting watermelons on his grandparents’ farm with his cousin Sonny.

A worldly career

Sonny Perdue, the future governor, stuck around Middle Georgia, while David Perdue launched a business career that would take him around the world.

A Georgia Tech graduate, Perdue began his career with 14 years in Atlanta working for the Kurt Salmon Associates consulting firm. Perdue has touted his work with manufacturers in rural Georgia, but while he was at the firm in the early 1980s, it was encouraging apparel companies to save money by increasing production overseas.

From there, Perdue climbed the corporate ladder with jobs in Asia and the U.S. for recognizable brands such as Sara Lee and Haggar. When asked in a 2005 deposition for bankrupt textile maker Pillowtex — where Perdue briefly was CEO — he said “I spent most of my career” outsourcing.

The Nunn campaign has seized upon the comment in recent weeks, after it was made public, while Perdue said the comment is an unfair distillation of his life’s work.

Perdue touts the roughly 20,000 American jobs created by Dollar General’s rapid expansion under his watch from 2003 to 2007. Perdue says any outsourcing at his companies was part of his work to strengthen and save companies and jobs.

The fault, he said, lies with an overtaxing, overregulating federal government that creates the incentives to move production abroad — macroeconomic conditions that go far beyond David Perdue.

“The best workers I’ve ever had the experience of working with are right here,” Perdue said.

“The work ethic is stronger. They are more innovative. They are more individualized. They are self-starters. …

“I just don’t see any reasons why we can’t compete and get some of these bad policies out of the way. I’m not talking about eliminating regulations. I’m just talking about finding a balance so we can compete.”

Back in Georgia

Perdue returned to his home state in 2009. The decision struck longtime family friend Sharon Fry because “he could have lived anywhere — literally — in the world.” She added, “This is where their roots are.”

Those roots include summers on the ball field with David Davidson, who reconnected with his old friend after Perdue moved back and found a man who looked and sounded just like the kid who left all those years ago.

“He didn’t have an arrogant sense about him that a lot of CEOs and people in powerful positions do,” Davidson said. “He was always grounded, and we appreciate that, those of us who grew up with him. And he’s still one of us.”

Rob Marett, a contractor who helped build Perdue’s $4.1 million home, called him “very open and friendly and probably one of my favorite customers of all time.”

They chatted about shared interests in golf — U.S. Golf Association records show Perdue to be nearly a scratch golfer — hunting and fishing. And Perdue was exacting about every detail in the home, from the stone to the cabinetry.

Pitching an expertise

Perdue’s senatorial sales pitch weaves a common touch with an uncommon resume, as one of few senators with a business background and the only Fortune 500 CEO.

“Let’s take the repatriation tax,” Perdue said, of the tax on companies’ offshore profits.

“Instead of walking into the Senate the first day and saying, ‘I’m David Perdue. I’m here. I’m going to fix the tax code.’ … What are my chances of doing that?

“But if I walked in and said, ‘You know guys, I was a Fortune 500 CEO. There’s not another one in here. I’ve got an idea where we can bring over $2 trillion back into the economy. It’s not a partisan issue.’ ”

Perdue can go on for days about tax policy and the long-term fiscal crisis that he says demands his expertise on Capitol Hill.

But he often chafes at the circus required to get him there. He lost his temper and walked out of a meeting with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during the GOP primary. The group endorsed longtime U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a more familiar face.

The relentless attacks bother him, though not as much as they do his wife, Bonnie, another Warner Robins product whom he met in first grade. They have two grown sons and two grandsons.

“In business, you deal in facts,” Perdue said. “And it’s linear. And in politics, it’s all about what can be fed to the media, to be honest, and what creates a buzz or a story.”

He has gotten noticeably better at it, coming from nowhere in the polls to outlast a large GOP primary field as the "outsider" without any political baggage — and backed with $3.6 million of his own money.

These days Perdue spends much of his time traveling the state in a large recreational vehicle emblazoned with his name and signatures from supporters he meets along the way. Chick-fil-A stops, often more than once a day, are mandatory.

On the way into the Brunswick restaurant for lunch on a recent Saturday, a supporter called out to Perdue and he ambled over to her car.

After a spell, he rejoined his staff, grinning.

Said Perdue, “Nothing like a little retail (politicking) in the drive-thru.”

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