Lawmakers often speak of the lifelong friendships that are forged in the cauldron that is the state Capitol. Far less often do they mention the ones that crack in the same heat.
Such feuds are usually kept behind closed doors. But not always.
Late Wednesday, state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, punched the button on a press release announcing that he will end his re-election bid and withdraw as a candidate for House District 52.
But Wilkinson wants everyone to know that he didn’t jump. He was pushed. By two men he once considered close friends – Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and Wendell Willard, a Republican who represents an adjoining district and is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
They have their own version of events, and we will get to that.
Wilkinson, 69, is a 16-year veteran of the House and a former senior manager for Coke. “I have been most proud in helping create the City of Sandy Springs and nurturing its growth. That is why recent ugly political developments in our community have been so painful,” Wilkinson said in his release.
Two years ago, Wilkinson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent aggressive radiation treatment during last year’s session of the General Assembly, and never missed a day of voting. He began thinking of retiring from the Legislature – in 2018. But that wasn’t soon enough for some.
Wilkinson doesn’t mention his new enemies by name in his press release, but he says this: “They saw this as an opportunity to circumvent the electoral process by urging me to qualify to run again and then withdraw at the last minute and allow their candidate of choice to step into office unopposed,” he said.
This trick isn’t uncommon. State Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, did just that last week. His “challenger” will now run unopposed in the primary and general election.
But Wilkinson refused that route. “I flatly rejected this proposal,” he said. Here it’s worth mentioning that Wilkinson is chairman of the House Ethics Committee. Engineering a successor without a proper election wouldn’t have looked good.
And so, on the last day of qualifying this month, the mayor of Sandy Springs – who had managed Wilkinson’s first campaign for the Legislature – escorted City Councilman Graham McDonald into the Capitol to sign up for Wilkinson’s seat. Willard, whom Wilkinson often called his “older brother,” announced his support for McDonald.
“Their intention was to then pressure me to step aside with false claims that I have not been focusing on the needs of Sandy Springs,” Wilkinson said.
Part of that plan worked. It would have been an expensive race, and it’s hard for a candidate, even a long-serving incumbent, to mention a fast-approaching expiration date in one breath, then ask for a $2,000 campaign contribution in the next.
So on Wednesday, Wilkinson asked Secretary of State Brian Kemp to remove his name from the May primary ballot. Then Wilkinson endorsed Deborah Silcox, a local attorney and community activist, as his replacement. She had qualified on that last day, too.
“I’ve been a friend of Joe for a long time. I do feel for him in this situation, I really do. I do regret the way this has gone,” Silcox said. She was on her cell phone – knocking on doors.
There are two sides to any divorce. Paul and Willard describe a lawmaker who was losing his effectiveness and losing touch with his community – a charge that Wilkinson denies. (He does have a second home on St. Simons Island, but his accusers have vacation plots, too, Wilkinson points out.)
“The hardest part of my job is delivering bad news to friends,” Mayor Paul said. He admits that the “candidate-swap” mentioned by Wilkinson was in fact discussed – as one of many options, after Wilkinson expressed concern about who would replace him.
As Paul explained the situation, Wilkinson and Willard are Sandy Spring’s two chief representatives in the Legislature. Wilkinson was talking about retirement, and Willard isn’t far behind, he said. New blood was needed – while Willard remained to show the newbie the ropes, Paul said.
“Joe’s a classy guy. I don’t want to say a bad thing about him at all. He has earned that. He has honestly earned that,” Paul said. “But it’s kind of like the family situation where you have to tell a loved one, ‘Look, you have to turn over the keys.’”
Willard echoed those sentiments. “We came in together in 2001. I was the older brother, [former state Rep.] Ed Lindsey was the younger brother, and Joe would say he was the middle one,” the House judiciary chairman said. “I count Joe as a friend, and he may stay mad forever. I don’t know.”
This is more than a soap opera. The Legislature, like any law-making body when it is functioning, is a web of personal networks. And Sandy Springs is no longer the suburban backwater it was in the 1970s and ‘80s. The community is now a linchpin in the arc of development that spans north metro Atlanta.
At some point, north Fulton County will have to have that conversation about commuter rail that it postponed this year. Sandy Springs is where that conversation will begin. So how this feud plays out matters.
But do not weep for Joe Wilkinson. He will receive his well-deserved kudos. And when his term ends, Gov. Nathan Deal will appoint him to the board of the Technical College System of Georgia. He’ll be around — but short two old friends.
Read the whole of Wilkinson’s press release below: