Photo by Jim Massara
Clayton County GOP officers Geralyn Daniel, third vice chair; Harlan Groover, first vice chair; Carl Swensson, chairman; Laurel Schaeffer, second vice chair; Linda Slagel, treasurer; and Donna Dobrandt, secretary.
JONESBORO — There’s a Republican party in Clayton County. Really.
In a county that has rarely seen a Republican official elected in years and that Barack Obama carried overwhelmingly in 2008, the Grand Old Party sees itself as the “loyal opposition” at best, says GOP county chairman Carl Swensson of Morrow.
But that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t heard from from time to time.
Witness the T-SPLOST debate in Morrow that Swensson staged last month. Although not an official GOP function, with minimal publicity, it drew a crowd of nearly 40 on a hot Saturday afternoon. Almost all were there to oppose the proposed sales tax.
The Republicans are fielding a few candidates in Clayton, most notably S. Malik, who will run against incumbent Democrat David Scott for U.S. Representative. Still, at heart, Clayton GOP members are a fiercely independent lot who say they believe in self-reliance and would just as soon not deal with government at all.
“You can’t rely on other people to do it for you,” says Swensson, a lanky gentleman with a resonant voice just made for talk radio. “You must rely on yourself to get it done. That’s what this is all about.”
Government, the Clayton GOP says, is the problem and not the solution.
“It’s the only place in America you can go and be rewarded for failure,” Swensson says. “You can get a raise for being a failure. You can get a promotion to the next highest position for being an abject failure. And that cuts across party lines.”
Swensson says they also see big government as the agent that flipped Clayton County to majority minority in the 1990s, thanks to the pre-Olympics clean-up movement that eliminated low-cost housing in Atlanta and resulted in residents who lived there moving elsewhere.
“The same people who did that are the ones that came down here and now want to provide for those same people who were less fortunate in Fulton County,” Swensson says of the proposed T-SPLOST-funded bus service, which they oppose. “You can’t do it with the spread-out nature of this community. This community was middle-class. The whole county was a middle-class community.”
But didn’t this middle-class community also have the Ku Klux Klan marching down Main Street in Jonesboro as recently as the 1980s?
“I’m glad you went there,” Swensson says. “Do you know who the Klan were? They were the Democrats. Who tried to put the brakes on civil rights? The Democrats.”
So who are the Republicans?
“We, as a group, are Republicans because we believe in lower taxes and smaller government,” Swensson says. “Those are core beliefs.”
He says that he came to believe in self-reliance thanks to an epiphany earlier in life.
“I was young, stupid and liberal, OK?” he says with a laugh. “Trying to find my way in life and going from job to job but not making a whole lot of money. I have some harebrained idea, so I call my brother. I say ‘Charley, I really need some money, because I want to do this.’ And Charley would laugh at me and say, ‘Well, here’s how you can do it.’ He would show me how I didn’t need to take from him to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”
Swensson says his initial reaction to his brother was to think of him as a “cheap son of a gun.” And then, as he puts it, a “light bulb” goes off over his head: “I don’t have to rely on anybody but myself.
“That’s what the government has to do, and say no more,” Swensson goes on. “We’re not talking about more programs, to teach them, whoever they may be, how to be a computer technician, how to be a teacher, how to do this, that and the other. We show them how they can do it, by working extra jobs, where the jobs come from. The jobs come from the mental change that people go through when they have to survive. If you take the survival aspect out of the equation, there’s no incentive.”
“Republicans have a passion for helping people, I promise,” says Linda Slagel, Clayton County GOP treasurer. “But we don’t want to throw our money down this big deep dark hole to do it.”
Not surprisingly, Swensson and the other GOP officers — which include Slagel; Harlan Groover, vice chair; Laurel Schaeffer, second vice chair; Geralyn Daniel, third vice chair; and Donna Dobrandt, secretary — are big fans of “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s valentine to rugged individualism and a touchstone for those who identify with the Tea Party.
But isn’t “Atlas Shrugged” a little black-and-white, with its portrayal of totally noble businessmen and moochers on the dole? Isn’t there some ... gray area?
“If you play in the gray area, you’re going to stay in the mud,” Swensson replied. “If you try to make things black and white, you’re either going to go to the light or you’re going to go to the dark.
“And that’s where we’re at,” he added. “You’ve got a group of people here that wants everybody to go to the light.”