After vote against immigration ID, Georgia state senator faces challenge from right

The Georgia State Capitol is located in downtown Atlanta.

After opposing a bill to create a separate driver's license for some immigrants, state Sen. Chuck Payne faces competition in the Republican primary.

Payne, R-Dalton, voted down a bill in the Senate Public Safety Committee that would have created a new "Driver's Safety Card" for immigrants who hold work permits but do not have lawful status. It would be an alternative to a driver's license and only last as long as the work permit. They would also say "NO LAWFUL STATUS" and "NOT ACCEPTABLE FOR OFFICIAL PURPOSES."

photo State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton
photo Scott Tidwell

With Payne's vote, the bill died in committee, 5-4, on Feb. 21. He and state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick voted with three Democrats to kill the legislation. The supporters were all Republicans.

Payne said he voted against the legislation because driver's licenses already say "Limited Term" on them. He didn't see a need to create alternative cards, which would be oriented vertically. (A Georgia driver's license is oriented horizontally.)

"That bill was going to cost a lot of money," he said, "and accomplish nothing."

A DACA recipient who spoke at the committee hearing also argued that a separate form of identification for some immigrants will spur discrimination.

Nevertheless, Scott Tidwell believes Payne betrayed a key ideal of the Republican party. He said immigrants coming here illegally is the No. 1 threat in the country right now, impacting safety and employee wages. He believes a separate driver's license would have been a good step toward fixing these problems in Georgia.

"Our incumbent has made a decision to vote with the Democrats on (Senate Bill) 417, with illegals," said Tidwell, an apprentice funeral home director and the pastor of Prayer Baptist Church in Chatsworth. "I felt I needed to step up, give the people a choice. I wouldn't have voted that way. I am by no means opposed to immigration. I am for immigration and a pathway to citizenship. But everyone needs to come in lawfully."

In Georgia, non-citizens who want to get a driver's license have to provide several different types of identification. This can be different combinations of passports, U.S. Visas, I-94 forms or other immigration documents. Asked about the current process, Tidwell said he wasn't sure of the details.

He added that immigrants who came here illegally are bilking taxpayers out of government services, using their driver's licenses. Terry Olsen, an immigration attorney in Chattanooga, said that was not true.

"A driver's license in and of itself is never proof enough for any type of government benefit," he said. "They want to see your actual citizenship status. If you have a green card, they want to see your green card."

Olsen added that some people did commit fraud with driver's licenses in the early 2000s, but the federal Real ID Act fixed the problem in 2005.

Payne, meanwhile, said Tidwell's passion for immigration issues would be better used in Washington, D.C., not Atlanta. He suggested a run against U.S. Rep. Tom Graves made more sense.

"If that's his concern," Payne said, "he should be running for Congress, not state Senate."

In addition to immigration, Tidwell said he is passionate about protecting gun rights and opposing abortion legislation. He has never run for office but has been involved in politics in the past. In 2000, he volunteered at a phone bank for the George W. Bush campaign, urging people to get to the polls. Last year, he said he knocked on doors in support of Karen Handel's congressional campaign.

He said some friends urged him to run against Payne after his vote in the public safety committee. They were also upset with the decision.

Tidwell rejected Payne's assertion that immigration issues are mostly the concern of Congress.

"What we can do on the state level does influence things on a federal level," he said. "What we can do, we should do, as a state."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.