OPINION: The campaign interviews I won’t forget

Lieutenant governor candidate and Georgia Senate President Pro-Tem Butch Miller speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

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Lieutenant governor candidate and Georgia Senate President Pro-Tem Butch Miller speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

The one thing I never expected when I became a political reporter was how many candidates would cry during our interviews.

Men and women. Political veterans and rookie candidates. There’s no common thread to the ones who have broken down in front of me, other than caring about something enough to be brought to tears.

That kind of humanity seems in short supply these days in politics. Money and talking points drown out emotion and complicated subjects. Imperfections, which we all have, are a secret to hide or a weakness to exploit.

Donald Trump’s unique brand of personal meanness, masked as “telling it like it is,” has only made things worse.

Whatever the cause, I don’t want to jump into the horse race of the general election without telling you about some of the most memorable conversations I had on the trail this cycle — since several of them were with candidates who lost last Tuesday.

It was almost a year ago that I went to lunch with Butch Miller at the Collegiate Grill on the square in Gainesville.

Miller has a very formal title in the state Senate — “Senate President Pro Tem,” but in person, he’s more approachable and cheerful than a Walmart greeter.

We were sitting at a four-top having fries and shakes when I asked him why he was running for lieutenant governor. He started off with a pre-scripted answer about Georgia being “the number one state to do business.”

I told him I meant to ask why he’d bothered to get into politics at all.

Miller took a breath and, almost immediately, began to weep.

He told me about his oldest son, Cole, who had been born with a mitochondrial disorder that meant he would never be able to walk, talk or live on his own.

“Having him changed the purpose of my life,” Miller said.

He talked about making it his mission to take Cole anywhere other kids would want to go, like high school basketball games or outside to play in the snow. Cole even went on a jet ski once, tucked into the same life vest as his dad, as the two of them zoomed and skipped across the blue Florida water below.

“He died at 14, and I was a broken man,” Miller said with tears now streaming down his face. “I was emotionally, physically and spiritually destroyed.”

Other diners during the bustling lunch hour had noticed by then that Miller, a locally famous car dealer, was crying, but he kept talking.

“This community rallied around my wife and I and made our lives whole. And I owe this community more than I could ever repay.”

Miller lost his race for lieutenant governor to state Sen. Burt Jones last week.

Reduced to 30-second ads and lacking an endorsement from Donald Trump, Miller focused more on keeping boys out of girls’ sports than his original reason for getting involved in politics. A poll somewhere probably told him that was the strategic thing to do.

Over in the 14th Congressional District, I went to see Holly McCormack, a Ringgold insurance agent and first-time candidate, who was one of three Democrats running to unseat U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

We met at a Starbucks in Rome, where McCormack referred to Greene only as “Marge,” and said she’d gotten into the race against the congresswoman when yelling back at Greene’s cruel words and stunts on the news didn’t seem like nearly enough.

“Not one word out of her mouth is how we were raised, or what our faith would say is how we should treat people here,” McCormack said.

Once in the race, she and her team decided to spend their time volunteering at community organizations.

Her eyes welled with tears as she described driving to a local food bank for a morning, only to realize she had gone there for groceries years earlier, when her husband was struggling with addiction and she couldn’t afford food for their family.

“I didn’t know until I pulled up and thought, ‘Oh my god,’” she said. “They helped me. I know the families that go there. They don’t want a handout. They just need help.”

McCormack lost her race last Tuesday, too.

“I wanted to show people we can change that nonsense we see on the news, it’s not real,” she said. “And politicians don’t have to be bad. They’re supposed to be serving our needs.”

Like Holly McCormack, Wendy Davis was also a Democrat running in the 14th District to challenge Greene.

Davis is practically a fixture in Georgia Democratic circles after working as an aide and advisor in the state Capitol and on multiple campaigns.

She moved to Rome to escape that bubble, only to run for the Rome City Commission when she felt like her background could help the community she cared about.

She didn’t cry in our interview, but she readily diagnosed her own shortcomings as a 21st-century candidate, including the fact that her unsexy case to replace Greene is that she knows how government works.

She also knew she lacked the hyperbolic, look-at-me gene that seems required to break out in politics these days, especially in a race to compete against Marge.

“That false urgency and the demonization of our enemies apparently raises a lot of money, but I think that’s what’s wrong with our political discourse,” she said.

Davis lost Tuesday, too.

I’ve had plenty of other interviews with candidates and politicians who cried during these last two difficult years.

One was a Republican, exhausted by the chaos Donald Trump had infused into his own party. Another was a Democrat, working long days on legislation, but in his quiet moments, grieving a child who died.

The tears didn’t mean these people were weak. It meant they were human.

And it’s a quality slipping away from our politics that we should fight much harder to hold on to.