Political Insider

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In Cherokee County, proof that the truth isn't everything you imagine it to be

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Over the past few years, Cherokee County has been a breeding ground for a style of politics that rewards the intensity of one’s beliefs, even in the face of actual facts on the ground.

If you believe passionately enough, and loudly enough, this line of thinking goes, then truth can be ignored as a mere inconvenience. Purity of heart and the higher cause trump all.

It is a philosophy that will be dealt a harsh setback Thursday, when a local school board member, her Republican political adviser and a Cherokee County GOP secretary are sentenced for trying to bend reality to their will.

This wasn’t small ball.

The trio accused Cherokee County’s school superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, of attempting to run them down with his SUV last year after a particularly raucous school board meeting. Had they been successful, Petruzielo might now be up on charges that required him to spend the next quarter century in prison.

Instead, a jury of their peers on Saturday declared school board member Kelly Marlow, campaign strategist Robert Trim and county GOP secretary Barbara Knowles to be liars — and, thus, felons.

It is a case of hubris run amok. But it is more than just a simple morality play because Thursday’s sentencing represents the final collapse of a political faction that ruled Cherokee County until just two years ago.

In 2011, the GOP-dominated school board rejected a charter school academy that had the support of the county’s political leadership. Not just once, but three times. Education officials declared that it would drain a school system already strapped for cash.

The next year, the Cherokee state legislative delegation, led by then-Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, redrew school board district lines in an attempt to remove opponents to the Cherokee Charter Academy (which ended up receiving state funding).

Trim served as a political consultant to Rogers and many other Cherokee GOP figures at the time through his firm, Spitball Consulting. Trim is well known for his rough tactics.

In 2012, he wrote a note to Michael Chapman, the Cherokee school board chairman who was ousted by the redistricting, who had offended Trim. It included this line: “I’m giving you a warning shot across the bow instead of grinding you into concrete like a bug.”

Trim was worth the tens of thousands of dollars he was paid. That fall, when critics howled over Rogers’ sponsorship of an all-day state Capitol seminar on an alleged United Nations conspiracy to erase American property rights, Trim was brought in to distance his client from the Agenda 21 crowd.

But by the end of the year, Rogers — about to be stripped of his Senate leadership position — left to take a radio job with Georgia Public Broadcasting. (Rogers was let go from his GPB position earlier this month.)

With Rogers’ withdrawal from the political scene, his allies quickly fell. No one who was a member of the Cherokee legislative delegation in 2012 is still in office. One member, Calvin Hill of Canton, died of cancer.

Trim began to focus, romantically and politically, on Marlow, a tea partyer narrowly elected to the school board in 2012. Marlow immediately began challenging the board’s procedures and the superintendent’s influence. She single-handedly wrote the school system’s accreditation agency and asked for an investigation.

She got slapped down. Hard.

Which brings us back to bent realities and the Painted Pig Tavern in Canton, where our trio of doomed politicos was headed when Petruzielo passed them in his car — after that June 13 school board meeting.

Someone called 911. Statements were taken. But things didn’t get really serious until July 2. That’s when the Canton police invited Trim, Marlow and Knowles to re-enact the incident, as authorities videotaped not only their words, but their movements.

It was a compelling demonstration of the truth as they wanted it to be. The actors/accusers showed how Trim pushed Marlow out of the path of the school superintendent’s car. How all three paused on the sidewalk to catch their breaths. How astonished witnesses gathered ‘round to discuss the incident.

Apparently, only afterward did the three find out that there was a real video, recorded by a camera prominently anchored under the eaves of the restaurant’s roof.

It showed Trim walking in front of Marlow as Petruzielo’s car passed. It showed Knowles already through the restaurant door. There was no panic. No one stopped on the sidewalk, and there were no witnesses.

The three actors were arrested the day after their video play. Perhaps cops have a lower tolerance for spin than the rest of us.

After news of the verdict spread, I called Chapman — the fellow who was ousted from the school board two years ago. He’s on the May 20 primary ballot. Chapman has an opponent, but he expects to return to the board.

“The folks that I run with, the board, the people that I know in the system, all the folks that support me — there’s an elation in Cherokee County,” the local plant manager said.

Things have been patched up with the county’s legislative delegation, but some animosity lingers. “This is like the reddest part of Georgia. It’s blood red,” Chapman said. He blames President Barack Obama — for exacerbating the lines between Democrats and Republicans.

“They’ve created at the national level such divisiveness that if anybody — all the way down to your local school board — even slightly hints that they’re not following the party doctrine, they castrate you,” the school board veteran said.

The truth is considered an absolute defense in journalism. Perhaps we should give it some protected space in politics as well.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.