The story of Dawson Mathis, Georgia’s unfinished politician

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President Jimmy Carter and U.S. Rep. Dawson Mathis/Albany Herald

The best political writing you’re likely to come across today will not come from me, but from a predecessor. Charlie Hayslett was a veteran political writer for the Atlanta Journal when I was just an intern, and then a newbie for the combined AJC. From his Facebook page, with permission:

One hot night in the summer of 1980 I was in Augusta, Ga., to serve as a debate panelist questioning the Democratic candidates in that year’s U.S. Senate race. After the debate was over, I still had to write and call in a story for the next day’s Atlanta Journal, and in the process I managed to miss the last Delta flight back to Atlanta.

 

 

Exactly how this came to pass now eludes me, but somehow I bumped into one of the four Democratic candidates, then-U.S. Representative Dawson Mathis, as he was leaving some post-debate function. He had driven over to Augusta by himself and offered me a lift back to Atlanta. Because neither of us had eaten, we grabbed a six-pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor tall-boys and a bag full of Wendy’s hamburgers and headed west on I-20 at about 90 miles an hour. I’m still sort of amazed we made it back alive.

 

 

By then I had known and covered Dawson for the better part of four years. I got to know him when The Atlanta Journal sent me to Washington in 1976. I pretty quickly decided he was one of the best natural-born politicians I’d ever met or covered. Forty years later I still feel the same way. Given the bad odor in which most politicians find themselves today, I should emphasize that I render this judgment as a compliment, not a criticism.

 

 

It helped that Dawson had looks and luck. He was a big, strapping, handsome country boy from Nashville, Ga. He had a full head of hair, an easy smile and a silver tongue. Usually he had a bemused look on his face that said I know something you don’t. Usually that was true.

 

 

He was also a college dropout who got married and had a first child at way too young an age. Early on he scratched out a living driving a bread route for Flowers Bakery and working as a radio announcer at several South Georgia radio stations before somehow landing a job as news director and anchor at WALB-TV in Albany. It was the largest station in Southwest Georgia. Mathis was 24 years old.

 

 

A few years later the area’s incumbent congressman, Maston O’Neal, announced he was retiring and Mathis decided to run for the seat. He parlayed six years of being a regular visitor in most of the region’s living rooms into winning his first political campaign. He moved his family to Washington in a U-Haul truck and was 29 years old when he was sworn into office. At the time, he was the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

 

He had just been re-elected to his fourth term in Congress when The Atlanta Journal moved me to the Washington Bureau and I started covering the Hill and getting to know Georgia’s delegation members. Dawson stood out for several reasons.

 

One was his total lack of pretense in dealing with me and, I assume, others in the media. My recollection is that he was the only delegation member who didn’t have a press secretary. I could drop by his congressional office unannounced and, if he wasn’t busy, I’d usually get waved back to his office, where I’d often find him with his boots up on his desk, sleeves rolled up and tie loose, cigarette smoke rising to the ceiling.

 

 

He was usually happy to discuss and answer questions about everything from peanut subsidies and the military bases in his district to the political kerfuffles of the day. He was smart and quick (not always the same thing), and it was always entertaining to watch a slow-talking country boy from South Georgia politely outwit a roomful of Ivy League-educated lawyers and business types.

 

 

The 1970s were obviously a different time, but they still featured no small degree of partisan squabbling. Even so, Mathis, a Democrat, seemed largely oblivious to other members’ party affiliations. His best friends in Congress included Republicans like Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Bob Livingston of Louisiana and Bob Michel of Illinois, the latter a member of the GOP leadership.

 

 

At the same time, House Speaker Tip O’Neill tapped Mathis for a seat on the influential House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. No reminiscence about Mathis would be complete without an acknowledgement that he enjoyed a good glass of whisky and a game of cards. I think I can report without fear of contradiction that he engaged in both pursuits on a bipartisan basis.

 

 

Many saw a bright future in the House for Mathis. He was young, held a safe seat and was popular among his colleagues. He already chaired an important House Agriculture subcommittee and was probably no more than two or three terms away from a full committee chairmanship. Some thought he might have a shot someday at becoming Speaker of the House.

 

 

So it came as a shock to the state’s political system when he decided to abandon his House seat and jump into the 1980 Senate race. It already had a field crowded with heavyweights. The incumbent, four-term U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge, was bleeding badly from self-inflicted wounds resulting from his clumsy divorce from his wife of many years and had already drawn challenges from Lt. Governor Zell Miller and former Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Norman Underwood.

 

Miller was positioned more or less as the New South liberal (not such a dirty word back then) in the race while Underwood staked out a middle ground as a pragmatic fresh face.

 

Because Talmadge’s roots ran wide and deep through Georgia’s rural and agricultural regions (not to mention its corporate boardrooms), Mathis wasn’t left with much of a lane to run in. Talmadge had been in office for 24 years and was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and ranking member on Senate Finance; Mathis had been in office for 10 years and chaired a House Agriculture subcommittee. He had to share his own rural congressional district with Talmadge and couldn’t really hope to compete with him in fundraising.

 

 

Friends tried to talk him out of it, but he had grown weary and bored with having the same debates year after year in the House and decided he wanted to go to the Senate or go home. The conventional wisdom was that he would finish a slow fourth, and the conventional wisdom turned out to be right; he got about 13 percent of the vote. (Talmadge was forced into a runoff with Miller and won that handily, but then lost in the 1980 general election to Republican Mack Mattingly. That was the beginning of the GOP takeover in Georgia.)

 

 

As a reporter covering the race, I would occasionally call political sages around the state and get their take on the race. The judgment on Mathis was universal and almost always rendered with a note of sorrow. The state would be losing an important and influential House member, and a promising political career would be cut short.

 

I remember calling one State House leader in middle Georgia. He didn’t want to be quoted by name because he didn’t want to be seen as taking sides, but the essence of his comment has stuck with me over the years: “If you took all four of’em and parachuted them down into a congressional district in, say, Arizona, and gave’em nothing to work with but shoe leather and time, Dawson would win going away.”

 

 

After that ‘80 Senate race, Dawson and I largely lost track of each other. I had moved back to Georgia and left the paper. He stayed in Washington and hung out a shingle as a lobbyist. I did hear from him once in late 1981 or early ‘82. I had signed on as press secretary with one of his congressional colleagues, U.S. Representative Bo Ginn. Ginn was running for governor and Mathis was supporting him. One day my phone rang and I answered it to hear Dawson’s familiar drawl. “Goddamn,” he said, “I thought we had a chance until I heard you were involved.” He might have been right. We led the primary but lost the runoff to Joe Frank Harris.

 

 

After that it really was years before we reconnected, thanks first to email and then Facebook. Somewhere along the way he acknowledged what I had suspected but never known back during the ‘80 Senate race — that he was gambling that Talmadge’s ethics woes would get worse and might even draw criminal charges during the campaign. If that happened, Mathis would be positioned to step in as a conservative and rural alternative. That didn’t happen, of course, but Mathis had no regrets. “It was the best mistake I ever made,” he told me.

 

 

Some years back he finally retired and moved back to Nashville with his wife Cathy Jo. I’m told he moved home the same way he went to Washington — in a U-Haul truck. Several months ago I was planning to be in South Georgia and got in touch with him to see if we might get together. He readily agreed and even invited me to join him at one of his weekly poker games in Valdosta. I couldn’t make that, which was probably smart and lucky on my part, but now I wish I’d gone. I’m sure the conversation would have been worth the price of admission.

 

As it turned out, we weren’t able to get together on that trip. He wound up in the hospital with pneumonia the day we were supposed to meet. He called me from his hospital bed to apologize and then we had a long phone conversation the next week. He helped me fill in some blanks on a research project I was conducting.

 

 

He died earlier this week at the age of 76, not old by today’s standards. The smoking caught up with him in the end. It claimed one lung several years back and then finished him off last Monday evening.

 

 

Next week I’ll drive down to Nashville for his funeral. Somewhere along the way I may stop for a Wendy’s and a Schlitz Malt Liquor.

We’re told that memorial services for Mathis will be held on Saturday, April 29, at Lovein Funeral Home, 1216 Adel Road in Nashville, Ga.  Visitation will be held 10 to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. until the 2 p.m. service.


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