“They all pitched the same lines,” says Wendy Davis, a Democrat and Rome city commissioner. “‘We love Trump. We love guns. We hate abortion. And we hate socialism.’ When candidates say the same things, voters pick the one who’s most authentic and passionate. By far, that was Greene.”
Her primary opponents only criticized her “carpetbagger” status: She moved from Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (an Atlanta suburb) to the 14th district—correctly calculating, says Davis, that “it was easier pickings.” Kevin Van Ausdal, her lackluster Democratic opponent, dropped out of the race for “family” reasons (his wife served him with divorce papers in the middle of what would have been a long-shot campaign). But since his name remained on the ballot, he still got 25 percent of the vote.
Greene’s notorious tweets calling for the execution of Nanci Pelosi, the “Squad,” and other Democrats “destroying our country”—all of them dubbed communists and socialists—continue to play perfectly to her base. Supporters flock to her fundraisers where she raffles off 50-caliber sniper rifles, and cheer when she welcomes to her rallies militiamen and Ku Klux Klan members like Chester Doles, who also leads the National Alliance (a white supremacist group). They give thumbs-ups to her posts comparing Covid-19 mask mandates to Nazi terror during the Holocaust.
The district, which has 12 counties in northwest Georgia, is overwhelmingly white—at 75 percent of its 737,000 residents—and has voted Republican for generations. Hispanics, who work in the area’s 150 carpet factories, account for 12 percent of the population; because some households have undocumented members, they tend to avoid elections. Blacks residents, at 9 percent, have little clout.
Per capita income is $26,000, less than Georgia’s $32,600. And almost 13 percent of the district—most of them whites—live below the poverty line. Although Rome (the district’s largest city) is home to four colleges, 34 percent of district residents have only high school degrees, 11 percent have bachelors’ degrees, and 18 percent have neither.
From the vantage point of Washington, D.C., where masks are the indoor norm—for example, in subways, stores, schools, offices, and hotels—the maskless scene of Georgia’s 14th district seems unreal. “Masks are dumb,” a federal building security guard in Rome told me. “Science shows they don’t work. I wear one because I have to, for my job.”
“Bureaucrats like Fauci use the virus to see how much control they can have over the American people,” said Randy Smith, chair of the Floyd County Republican Party. “Rome passed a mask mandate but removed it in a few weeks. People wouldn’t have obeyed it anyway.”
Smith insists that “forcing kids to comply is ridiculous, because the percentage of young people dying from Covid is less than the flu.” (CDC numbers show that Covid killed 680 children under 18 in the United States from March 2020 to November 1, 2021, while 199 died from the flu in 2019–20). Smith says he gets his information from Fox News, Newsmax, One News America, CBN-TV, Christian Broadcasting Network, and CNN.
Floyd County Republicans were so opposed to masks that they gave local businesses free signs for their windows stating: “This location does not consent to enforcement of any local face covering requirement upon this property.”
As for Greene’s conspiracy theories—such as that the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting was a “false flag staged event”—Smith claims that “the liberal media ties her to these statements. Around here, they don’t even come up.”
Smith says he and Greene are certain that Trump won the election and are “totally opposed to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger because he refused to listen to our call for a forensic audit.” Although every Georgia district did a hand recount with Republican and Democrat observers (Smith was one of them), he’s still sure the result was flawed.
Of the 15 people I interviewed on Rome streets, in the local Walmart, a hotel, and the Subway restaurant, none thought being unmasked and unvaccinated put them or others at risk. Thus, as of November 1, only 33 percent of Floyd County residents (and just 25 percent in Walker County) had been vaccinated. Not surprisingly, Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center numbers show that in Washington, D.C., where 62 percent of people are vaccinated, there were 334 Covid cases per 100,000 people in the past month. In Floyd County, there were 470.
Some I interviewed, such as a veteran wearing an “Iraqi Freedom” cap, display a peculiar disconnect. “I now get Medicare and love it because it’s far better than what I got with the VA,” he says. Should Medicare cover more people? “No! If you expand it, we won’t have enough medical services for everyone and we’ll have to pay more taxes.” Would you have liked to get Medicare at an earlier age? “Of course! Who wouldn’t?”
“Programs like Medicare and Medicaid are demonized as government overreach or communist,” Davis explains. “People hear this over and over, and social media makes it worse. Some people are angry, vulnerable and believe the lies.”
But she adds that others are trying to improve conditions. Some focus on domestic violence and raise funds for Hospitality House, a shelter for abused women (I attended a candlelight vigil, where victims read the names of 130 Georgians killed by their mates in 2020). Others do job training or run the Community Kitchen, which offers meals, showers, and laundry facilities for Rome’s homeless. City commissioners passed a one-cent tax in 2001 that raised $14 million, which was used to build a baseball stadium, a tennis center that attracts large events, a public space for festivals, and walking paths along Rome’s rivers.
“The projects created jobs and boosted local businesses,” Davis says, and pointed to the people and their dogs strolling through Rome for the city’s second Schnauzer festival, from October 22 to 24.
Davis also convinced developers to build super-small, affordable houses whose owners share amenities like vegetable gardens, creating “a community.” Further, she holds telephone town hall meetings: recently, one with medical experts drew 4,000 listeners who asked questions about Covid vaccines. The meeting was so popular it lasted far longer than planned.
Sam Malone, a past Floyd County NAACP president, grew up in Rome. He found it “a good place to live, regardless of one’s color.” He thinks Rome has made progress addressing inequities: Blacks teach in the public schools, are on the local school board, and three are on the city council.
But hate dies hard. Racial animus spills out—sometimes subtly, sometimes not. When Greene tweets “we’re gonna take our country back,” Malone points out, there’s a subtext. “Who’s she taking it back from? No one is confused.”
Other racist vestiges are more glaring. In 2012, a photo surfaced of Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison in KKK garb (Cherokee abuts two 14th district counties), yet he was reelected to his post—one he had held for two decades—with 68 percent of the vote. This past August, Georgia’s House speaker appointed Garrison to the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission. The photo resurfaced and Garrison had to resign.
Malone says things have changed since Trump was elected. “A couple years ago, a guy told me he was going to be fired and his supervisor told him, ‘You know, Trump is going to put things back like they used to be.’ And a Caucasian man I considered a good friend was angry because he thought his vote for Trump wasn’t counted. These seem like replays of what happened in Germany, when more and more citizens bought into the Nazi narrative.”
Recent Floyd County incidents are instructive. Coosa High School has a majority of white students and an all-white faculty; the County School Board is also all-white. Last March, some Coosa white students reenacted George Floyd’s killing on social media. Sara Dahlice Malone, the Rome/Floyd County NAACP chair (and Sam’s wife) wrote the school superintendent to learn if he’d investigated the incident and if any steps were taken. He didn’t answer Malone’s letter until a week later, after the Rome News-Tribune published it. He claimed the board did send a letter, but not by certified mail—implying this was why Malone never received it.
More recently, two weeks before I arrived in Rome, four Coosa High students carried a Confederate flag around the school. Black students and parents were outraged and protested to the principal, Justin Cox, who told them he needed proof. They thought this remarkable, since students aren’t allowed to bring their phones to school. Still, someone did get a video and photo of the flag wavers. Black students and their parents, along with some white students, announced on social media they would hold a peaceful protest. Cox banned it, but they held it anyway, surrounded by police whom Cox had alerted. The day-long event was noisy, but violence-free.
The Black students were suspended for a week and weren’t allowed to attend Coosa’s homecoming events. The white students protesting with them were not suspended. Nor were the flag wavers. “The parents were terrified,” said Richard Rose, head of NAACP Atlanta. “Police came to some of their homes and stopped one mother in her car to hand out the school’s suspension notices.”
When I asked Cox for details, he wouldn’t talk, claiming student privacy concerns. He suggested I speak to someone at the Floyd County Bureau of Education. But no one was available. Nor did anyone answer my telephone messages.
Were the flag wavers suspended? Again, Cox and the administrators wouldn’t say. But other students saw them in school.
The dress code is another quagmire. Students aren’t allowed to wear Black Lives Matter or George Floyd T-shirts because the code prohibits clothes that could be “disruptive.” Since the student manual doesn’t elaborate, I asked Cox for details. Once more, he wouldn’t say. But some Black students claim that white students do wear shirts flaunting Confederate flags.
Two mothers whose daughters attend Coosa say they’re routinely called racial slurs and taunted about their hair and skin color. One of the girls—who tried to bleach her skin—needs counseling. Her mother doesn’t know if she can afford it.
“Fear and hate are easy to sell,” says Davis, “and some politicians and media profit from provoking conflict.” She described an 80-year-old neighbor who was a Democrat all his life, who worked on campaigns and as a Korean War vet tried to get veterans better benefits. “He’s now in a care facility where he watches Fox News all day, which, during the George Floyd protests, showed cities burning hour after hour. Now, he’s worried.”
Davis plans to oppose Greene in the 2022 campaign, aware that it will be an uphill battle. Greene has already attacked her in a fundraising e-mail that overlays head shots of Davis with Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams under a headline proclaiming, “Liberals have hand-picked her.”
Malone says some people regret voting for Greene, but others adore her. So it’s tough to predict 2022. Three million dollars poured into her campaign in the first quarter of 2021 (though 90 percent was from outside the district). One thing is certain: If the race tightens, Greene’s rants will be even more rancorous.