In a few short days, Donald Trump will take the reins of government in Washington. Back here in Georgia, in Henry County, a similar responsibility – much smaller, but still important – will be taken up by June Wood.
This is a tale of two Republicans and two possible futures for the GOP, in Georgia and elsewhere.
Trump was a first-time candidate who has successfully parlayed his real estate experience into a presidency. Wood, too, was a novice candidate, whose ties to business have helped her become county commission chairman. The fight ended only weeks ago, with a general election runoff.
Unlike Trump, Wood is neither white nor male.
And yet, last Nov. 8, in a region of metro Atlanta fraught with racial division, Wood was the lead vote-getter in that three-person, open-seat race for the top leadership position in Henry County. She won 1,531 more votes than Trump (who lost the county to Democrat Hillary Clinton).
This makes Wood more than a 53-year-old mother and wife, a retired Georgia Power executive, and now, a winning politician. She’s an example of the crossover opportunities that might lie ahead, should Republicans decide not to stampede down the path that Trump blazed to the White House.
“I’ve seen communities where, if you don’t learn to work collaboratively, it becomes divisive and everyone loses,” Wood said in a Tuesday interview at GOP offices in McDonough.
By now, we all know the story. The “autopsy” conducted after Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat in 2012 pointed to the GOP’s mathematically certain future. Numerically, white voters who form the base of electoral support for the GOP are in decline. Voters of color, who are inclined to vote Democratic, are on the increase.
The GOP needed to become a larger umbrella that was more welcoming to women and minorities, authors of the autopsy declared.
Trump tossed aside their finding. Instead, the Republican nominee gambled that he could make up for the demographic skid in white voter influence by driving more new and infrequent voters to the polls. With dog-whistling language that anyone who grew up in the South would recognize.
June Wood picked up the autopsy report that Trump spurned and showed how it could work.
Wood hails from Birmingham. Her community experience came as Georgia Power’s ambassador to south metro Atlanta. “It was all about working with our elected officials and community influencers to move the county in a positive direction,” Wood said in a Tuesday interview at GOP headquarters in McDonough.
She chaired the boards of the Henry County chamber and the local technical college. She sat on the hospital board. When she retired from the utility, both Democrats and Republicans sounded her out as a potential candidate.
Changing racial demographics threaten long-time Republican control of Henry County. Whites made up 80 percent of the county’s population in 2000. As of this year, a population explosion of 100,000 new residents has forced that percentage down to 47 percent.
Wood became the bridge across that racial shift.
She wasn’t always Republican. Her Alabama parents were Democrats. But social issues required her to change sides. “I am a very dedicated Christian who believes that those principles in the Bible are things we should abide by,” Wood said. “Being pro-life, the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, individual responsibility — those things that are important to me.”
Biracial alliances can be delicate things. Any Democrat will testify to that fact.
So I asked Wood if Republicans in her neck of the woods welcomed her candidacy. “The Henry County GOP did not know me. So I had to develop some relationships with them. And I would say, yes, they’ve done what they need to do,” she said. “The GOP was actually very instrumental in the general election.”
But she dropped hints that all was not smooth sailing, especially at first. “People were saying, ‘Is she really Republican? — because it’s unorthodox for an African-American to be Republican — or is she playing games just to win?’” Wood said. “All of that was happening in the Republican primary and runoff.”
(Vicki Temple, who chairs the Henry GOP, told me that Wood endured a few rude receptions from older voters during door-knocking marathons that targeted “soft” Democrats. “She was amazing. She never lost her poise,” Temple said.)
Back in 1984, Robert Benham was appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris as the first African-American member of the state Court of Appeals. Benham immediately faced re-election. One of the keys to his successful campaign – the first statewide victory by a black Democrat — was the fact that his status as an African-American was kept something of a secret.
I asked Wood if everyone who voted for her knew that she was African-American. “Some did, but a lot probably didn’t. My signs had no pictures on them,” Wood said. “Those who were on social media knew that I was. But I’ve had a few tell me that they didn’t know I was black nor a female.”
(Newcomers might need to be reminded that, until a generation or so ago, “June” was a name quite often attached to Southern men.)
Business leaders in Henry County vouched for Wood. So did her neighbor, Herman Cain. The former GOP presidential candidate and WSB Radio host served as coach and mentor.
In four rounds of voting – a primary, primary runoff, general election and general election runoff – Wood led the balloting each time. A September poll by her campaign showed Wood winning nearly 13 percent of the African-American vote. The same poll showed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican running for re-election, with 11 percent of the black vote. Trump registered at 8 percent.
A write-in candidate in the Nov. 8 contest drew just over 1,000 votes – enough to throw Wood into the Dec. 6 runoff with Democrat Carlotta Harrell. Which Wood then won with 66 percent of a much diminished turn-out.
“All sorts of people came to the forefront to help. But I’m not going to say that her ethnicity didn’t help her,” said Charles Mobley, Wood’s campaign manager. “Because she got lots of crossover votes.”
The bottom line is that, in the midst of the most polarizing presidential election of our lifetime, in a community riven by shifting racial tides, Republicans were able to hang onto a county chairmanship because they were willing to live inside a larger tent.
As a Donald Trump administration begins, that’s something worth thinking about. Hard.