ATHENS — The Georgia Republican position on gay rights has just gotten a little more nuanced.
On Saturday, the second and final day of their statewide convention, Georgia Republicans loudly endorsed a religious liberty bill, which many supporters say is needed to offset a coming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Convention approval was not unexpected, but the lack of debate was. The resolution was one of many approved en masse and without discussion, by a large majority, as 2,000 delegates and alternates walked out the door.
The vote was an endorsement of SB 129, authored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus – now held in check by the House and viewed with suspicion by Gov. Nathan Deal.
But quietly, and perhaps without the knowledge of many of those gathered in front of a giant American flag, something else happened as well.
For the first time, the Georgia GOP elected an openly gay man as one of its principal officers, in charge of the millions of dollars that flow into and out of the state’s ruling party.
Mansell McCord, 61, a tax attorney from Fulton County was elected state treasurer of the state GOP on a vote of 770 to 596, beating Brittany Marmol, the treasurer for the Gwinnett County GOP.
McCord had the support of five past state GOP chairmen and many members of the party hierarchy.
Who stood before the convention to nominate McCord? The same Josh McKoon who authored SB 129, the aforementioned religious liberty bill.
“You need a man of unimpeachable integrity. You need someone who understands the complexity of campaign finance law,” McKoon told delegates. “And you need someone who has been dedicated to the conservative movement for decades.”
State Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, was the sponsor of another religious liberty bill that was stalled in the Legislature this year. He, too, supported McCord’s election.
“He’s committed to conservative principles. He’s very capable at doing the work, and he’s got strong character. He’s a good friend,” the Marietta lawmaker told a reporter.
Yes, Teasley knew that McCord is gay, as did many others, including Virginia Galloway, a spokesman for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The state party has spoken. I’m good with that,” she said. “The great thing about [McCord] is that he doesn’t make a big deal of it.”
But it is unlikely that McCord’s sexual orientation was widely known among delegates in the convention. It was never mentioned in speeches on the floor, nor did McCord dwell on it in his campaign literature.
Also on the ballot Saturday was Debbie McCord of Columbia County, a (winning) candidate for second vice-chairman. “It is my understanding that Debbie McCord and Mansell McCord are not husband and wife. Is that true?” asked one delegate from the floor.
Randy Evans, the long-time member of the Republican National Committee and chair of the proceedings, assured her that the two were not related. It was gone when he wielded the gavel, but early that morning, Evans had sported a McCord sticker on his jacket.
The new state GOP treasurer is a quiet fellow, unmarried and unattached, who has worked for decades in the background of internal Republican operations. When asked for his opinion on the religious liberty resolution under consideration by the convention, McCord declined to answer – saying he would stick to matters of party finance.
McCord had close connections to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, and for the last six years has served as executive director of Republican Leadership for Georgia – a training organization for GOP office-seekers. Of the 1,513 delegates eligible to vote on Saturday, 103 had moved through that small school – a distinct advantage in a close contest.
Among the graduates of that school was McKoon, who nominated him. “There is no one in the Republican party who has done more for the leadership of the GOP in Georgia. It sends a message that needs to be said,” declared McKoon, who himself has been the target of criticism from gay rights activists for his pursuit of religious liberty legislation.
McCord succeeds Bob Mayzes, who gave up the position of treasurer after 20 years. Last year, roughly $6 million was raised and spent by the state GOP to defend its hold on the state.
(Mayzes created a stir on the first day of the session when he endorsed Alex Johnson, a DeKalb County attorney, over incumbent chairman John Padgett of Athens. Padgett won with 57 percent of the vote.)
With a controversial fight over religious liberty and gay marriage in the offing, there is a temptation to think that McCord’s election was an orchestrated event intended to soften the state GOP’s image.
An early effort was made to elect a single slate of candidates selected by an official nominating committee. McCord was part of that slate.
But McCord’s defenders said the man had simply paid his dues. “He was there when I started. Everyone knows him. He was always the go-to guy. He knows where the money goes to and where it flows from,” said John Mayer of Cobb County. “It’s his turn.”
And that fact that McCord is gay? “We go by what people do, not little things that are driven by biology or environment,” Mayer said.