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Jesse Vaughn, candidate for the District 5 Georgia House set speaks at the Murray County Senior Center. The Murray County Republican Party hosted a meet and greet for candidates running for the District 5 Georgia House Seat on December 20, 2018. The seat was left empty with the death of longtime house member John Meadows.
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Jesse Vaughn, candidate for the District 5 Georgia House set speaks at the Murray County Senior Center. The Murray County Republican Party hosted a meet and greet for candidates running for the District 5 Georgia House Seat on December 20, 2018. The seat was left empty with the death of longtime house member John Meadows.

Like any good Baptist, Jesse Vaughn understands the appeal of a good transformation story.

So when he released a campaign ad on New Year's Day, he addressed his wayward past. The public record tells no lies: He used to be a Democrat. But those days are gone, he promised. He matured, became a father and worked with local business owners, witnessing the scourge of overzealous government regulations. Vaughn believes he is as qualified as any of the five Republicans running for the Georgia House District 5 seat Tuesday.

"I think it will break through," he said of his message. "Or I hope it will, I guess. I've tried to be as straightforward and honest and sincere about it as I can be. I'm not trying to run away from my past. This has been a journey that I'm on."

Vaughn's work with the liberal wing — including an unsuccessful state house run as a Democrat in 2002 — has been a frequent topic of conversation on the campaign trail, several candidates say. A lifelong resident of Gordon County, he believes he can clear the hurdle with conservative voters. But his Republican opponents think some in the community don't trust the switch.

"If Jesse wins the seat," said Matt Barton, "I truly hope he is a Republican and totally has changed. That is a real concern that I have for him. I'm a pretty strong Republican. I've been listening to Rush Limbaugh for 25 years."

Like many Gordon County residents, Vaughn explained that his parents were long-time Democrats. After his run for office in 2002, in which he lost to future Congressman Tom Graves, Vaughn was chairman of the local Democratic party for about a year. He later volunteered for Cathy Cox's 2006 campaign for governor.

She lost in the primary, and he now says the state's party establishment treated her unfairly. He believes they clearly favored her opponent, Mark Taylor. He did not provide any specific examples, but he argued that Cox was punished for refusing to toe the party line on every issue.

"What I saw on the inside of Georgia Democratic politics made me sick," he said. "She was treated horribly. That didn't work for me. It was on things where, I felt like she was reaching out for practical solutions that didn't necessarily fit in the Democratic box."

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From left, Georgia House District 5 candidates Larry Massey, Jesse Vaughn, Matt Barton, Scott Tidwell and Steve Cochran say the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the program. The Murray County Republican Party hosted a meet and greet for candidates running for the District 5 Georgia House Seat on December 20, 2018 at the Murray County Senior Center in Chatsworth. The seat was left empty with the death of longtime house member John Meadows.

According to his voting record, Vaughn cast a ballot in the 2008 presidential primary. Beginning two years later, he voted in Republican primaries. The son of a preacher, he told the Times Free Press that he has always opposed abortion. He said he has grown more hostile toward some government regulations.

Vaughn represented North Georgia National Bank through the recession. He said the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed through a Democratic Congress in 2010, put too many regulations on small banks.

"There are just places where government doesn't have the answer or the solution," he said. "People to the left want to think the answer to every situation is government in some ways. To me, that's dangerous."

If a little later than most, Vaughn's conversion mirrors that of most of Gordon County. In 1988, 67 percent of the county's voters supported Democrat Joe Frank Harris for governor. By 2002, the year Vaughn ran for the state House, only 35 percent of voters backed the liberal candidate, incumbent Roy Barnes. The winner in that race, Sonny Perdue, became the first Republican governor in Georgia since Reconstruction.

Tuesday's special election for the state House seat is being held because of the death of Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, who died the week after the November election. The district consists of most of Gordon County, as well as one district in Murray County. As of 11 a.m. Thursday, 1,030 people had voted early. The early voting period ends Friday.

Candidate funding

Matt Barton (Through Dec. 27): $936.25

Steve Cochran: No report filed

Larry Massey Jr. (Through Dec. 31): $4,778

Brian Rosser: No report filed

Scott Tidwell (Through Dec. 31): $11,350

Jesse Vaughn (Through Jan. 3): $46,550

Source: Georgia State Ethics Commission

Vaughn is the race's most well-heeled candidate, with $46,550 in donations as of Thursday. (The next most well-funded candidate is Scott Tidwell, with $11,350 in support as of Monday.)

Vaughn's supporters include multiple current House members, including Speaker of the House David Ralston. Vaughn said his family has known Ralston for decades, and he volunteered on Ralston's campaign for attorney general in 1998. He said Ralston encouraged him to run.

Vaughn also has received a donation from Meadows' campaign fund, administered through his wife and children. He said their families have been close for years, and his father spoke at Meadows' funeral. Family members encouraged him to run for the seat, Vaughn said.

Still, he knows he may get attacked from the right for his past record. In a Republican primary last year, Tidwell hammered incumbent state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, for his opposition to separate driver licenses for non-citizens. (Payne won that race with 52.8 percent of the vote.)

Vaughn is not the only Republican with a record of voting with the left, according to the county's elections office. Tidwell voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 2004, as did Steve Cochran. Barton voted in local Democratic primaries in 1996 and 2000, but says he can't remember the specific reason why. He thinks he was voting in sheriff's races.

There is one Democrat in Tuesday's election: Brian Rosser, who ran against Meadows in the Nov. 6 general election. Meadows won with 81.6 percent of the vote.

"In this district, being a Democrat is not a plus," said Larry Massey Jr., a Republican candidate in the election. " ... People are generally kind of surprised [Vaughn's] running as a Republican now."

Said Cochran: "He's got to live with that himself, however way it is. I'd always heard he's a very liberal person. I don't know. I've never talked to Jesse about his politics. I didn't figure it was really any of my business. Jesse's a fine fellow, as far as I know."

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

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