When House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, considered Rep. Tommy Benton for a seat on a civics education study committee, he apparently saw nothing other than a retired middle school history teacher.
That, in itself, says something about the political culture of the Georgia House.
For the better part of two years, Benton, R-Jefferson, has made a name for himself with his remarks about the Ku Klux Klan, legislative attempts to force Gov. Deal to reverse course on Confederate-themed holidays and referring to African-American slaves as “property” taken from Southern whites without compensation.
In an interview published in January 2016, Benton said the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said.
“It made a lot of people straighten up,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”
This year, he called a press conference in March to defend his bill establishing “Confederate History Month,” a bill that couched the Civil War as a “four-year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control.”
Benton was only at a loss for words only when asked if such a historical observation should also take into account the role slavery played in the war. “Next question,” he said.
When it comes to his beliefs, Benton hasn’t been quiet. He’s been forthright and unapologetic. No one makes him talk or puts words in his mouth.
Benton’s appointment to the study committee sets all those comments aside, essentially saying that his statements do not define him and are within the parameters of House decorum. The only factor considered when Benton was named to the civics study committee was his resume.
“Chairman Benton is a retired teacher who holds degrees in History and Middle School Education. He spent 30 years in the classroom teaching subjects including Georgia history and American history,” House communications director Kaleb McMichen said in an emailed statement.
House Majority Whip Christian Coomer, who sponsored the bill creating the committee, has nothing to say about Benton’s past remarks. Ralston did not respond to a request through his spokesman for comment, nor did Benton.
That silence is telling. Ralston and Coomer do not want to associate themselves with Benton’s remarks, but they also don’t want to hold him to account for them. Instead, he is treated as a nutty uncle whose out-of-step views are tolerated at family functions in the name of peace.
That vacuum invites folks like Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, to define them as white supremacists.
“The Georgia government still maintains white supremacy with the appointment of Benton to an educational committee,” he said. “Speaker Ralston believes in the premise of white supremacy.”
Study committees often do little
Time for a reality check.
The members of the General Assembly create study committees all the time and many end up doing very little.
Last year, the House created a committee to study state-supported reading services for the blind and visually impaired. The committee met twice and tasked a House staffer with writing a 15-page report explaining such services are good and there should probably be more publicity for them.
The Civic Education in Georgia Study Committee is another committee with low expectations. It’s got a “kids these days” vibe that makes good campaign fodder, but it’s unlikely to produce some groundbreaking educational reform, in part because the state school board historically has had little patience with state lawmakers dictating curriculum. And when the school board doesn’t complain, teachers revolt en masse to state lawmakers’ efforts to meddle in their classrooms.
Even Coomer, in speaking to the AJC’s Stirgus, tamped down expectations for the committee’s findings.
“It may be we are doing enough,” he said.
No complaints from Benton’s district
The voters of Jackson County elected Benton in 2005 and he has been handily reelected ever since. In last year’s GOP primary, Benton faced Wes Lewis, a political unknown who ran on a platform of local issues instead of “personal agendas and pet projects.” In a Facebook message posted just ahead of the primary, Lewis addressed Benton’s “unfortunate comments … about our Southern Heritage.”
“We can be proud without being hateful. We can protect history, without disrespecting entire groups, and without turning a blind eye to the despicable acts committed in our blood-stained past,” he said. “We can show people that conservatives are NOT a caricature of outlandish, foolish thoughts. We need serious, thoughtful, humble, modern conservatism for the future, not the past.”
If voters heard him, they weren’t impressed. Benton thumped Lewis, taking 73 percent of the vote. Benton ran unopposed in the November general election.
With such a mandate from his neighbors, Ralston needs to find ways that Benton can serve his district. If the speaker had appointed Benton to the newly created and vastly more impactful House Rural Development Council, the appointment likely would have not raised a single eyebrow.
But appointing him to a committee studying how Georgia’s youth are taught the lessons of citizenship and history only re-emphasizes Benton’s earlier comments. If Ralston only considered Benton’s past career and not his recent behavior, one might reasonably make a judgment about what the speaker considers important.
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