Gallery: Incumbent invites challenger to spend a day with him at Georgia’s Capitol
ATLANTA — Colton Moore speaks the language of the southern politician. He refers to his own generation as “the young folks,” our current era as “this day and age.” He calls a politician “a gentleman” and a gathering of politicians “a meeting among gentlemen.” He makes observations such as “The Appalachian is a special breed. They’re rugged, independent.”
And his voice: It’s deep and smooth, like an old radio announcer’s. It travels through halls and takes command of conversations. This isn’t an accident.
Moore, 24, trained his voice. He sits in his room alone, verbally sprinting through tongue twisters.
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“Betty-Botta-bought-a-bit-of-butter-but-she-said-this-butter’s-bitter,” he chants.
Moore thinks hard about how to use this voice. He considers how to best approach powerful people, how to greet them and hold casual conversations. He stands straight, all 6 feet, 4 inches of him. He looks them in the eye and encourages them to keep talking. He gives signals that they’re saying is important and interesting. “Yeaaah,” he says with that deep voice. “Surree,” he says.
All of which is to say, Moore always appears in control, even when logic says he shouldn’t be.
Take March 28, the day before Sine Die, the closing of the Georgia state legislature’s 2018 session. Moore met in the Capitol with John Deffenbaugh, 73, who represents Dade and Walker counties in the House. On May 22, the two will face each other in the Republican primary for Deffenbaugh’s seat. No Democrat is running.
When Moore signed up to run, Deffenbaugh invited him to Atlanta. He wanted to show Moore how to do the job. If nothing else, he said, the trip would allow them become friends. And everyone always needs more friends.
The day Moore arrived, the legislature was out of session. So with the room empty, Deffenbaugh brought him to the House floor. He shared a couple rules. Don’t touch the desks. Don’t touch the chairs. Don’t smoke, despite the old ashtrays built into the desks. Don’t walk down the middle aisle.
“For some reason,” Deffenbaugh said, his voice soft and slow, “that’s a sacred thing for the members.”
He brought Moore to the well, the lectern in front of House Speaker David Ralston’s seat, where representatives introduce bills. Moore remembered something Deffenbaugh said earlier, something about a book of rules that representatives follow. He wanted to read it.
“Procedure rules?” Moore asked. “Is that close by?”
“Yeah,” Deffenbaugh said. “Yeah, it is—”
“Or,” Moore said, with a sudden idea, “do you want to get a picture right here? I think, while we’re standing here, this would be a great place for us to take a picture.”
“Can we get the seats in the background?” Moore asked an impromptu photographer.
“This is the most common shot,” Deffenbaugh responded, suggesting they stand in a different direction, one that would capture the speaker’s rostrum.
Moore said OK. He asked for a moment to button his charcoal Brooks Brothers suit jacket and chuckled — the clumsiness of it, his jacket unbuttoned for a photo in the Georgia House of Representatives. Deffenbaugh buttoned his jacket, too.
The photo out of the way, Moore again asked for the book. Deffenbaugh found one nearby, read the title out loud.
“Rules, ethics and decorum,” he said.
“All right,” Moore said. “So everyone has a copy of this?”
“Yes,” Deffenbaugh said. “And that tells you how to present things, when you can do it, timing of doing it. Um. Someone put a, uh, amendment on a bill yesterday. And the guy who had the bill didn’t like the amendment. So he questioned the timing of the bill. Or the amendment. As it turned out, it was like an hour off.”
“So was the objector successful?” Moore asked.
“Yeah,” Deffenbaugh said.
“Yeah?” Moore said.
“It was, uh, there was no amendment on the book,” Deffenbaugh said.
“Yeah?” Moore said. “Wow.”
“So,” Deffenbaugh began. He saw Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon. “Hey! Bill! Let me introduce you!”
Can a 24-year-old succeed in the Capitol?
These are seats held, mostly, by older men. Some of them are middle-aged, with families and established careers as lawyers or small business owners. Others are retired or, in Deffenbaugh’s case, semi-retired. The job is part-time. The state pays about $17,000 a year, plus a per diem for lodging and meals.
But the work goes beyond 40 hours a week from January through March, when the legislature is in session. The rest of the year, representatives sit on study committees and prepare bills for the next session. Constituents and local politicians also rely on them to grease wheels in Atlanta.
Deffenbaugh said the pay isn’t worth the work, if that’s what you’re after. It’s especially difficult to justify in the early stages of your career.
Then there is the matter of actually legislating. Perhaps more than any other job, success in politics is dictated by relationships. Relationships are dictated by commonality. Hence the problem of a 24-year-old, trying to push bills through a committee. How would Moore build a rapport with, say, a Vietnam veteran?
Deffenbaugh said the job is not all about writing bills. Speed and aggression don’t always lead to results. You have to go along, get along, work with the same people every day.
“The biggest thing you could ever accomplish is to be part of this family,” he said. “And not everyone’s accepted, by the way. You have to earn that right.”
Those close to Moore resent questions about his age. He has dreamed of a career in politics since elementary school, when he would retreat from playing to watch the evening news. He believed, even then, that politicians and their laws shape the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, like his parents.
And so he began to prepare, fine tuning how he connected to others.
Tonya Gatlin, a Dade County High School teacher, said Moore presented the polish of a business executive when he was a teenager. He charmed people, even those much older than him. He circulated through rooms.
“He was like the faculty,” Gatlin said. “He was so mature.”
High school friends made T-shirts, urging people to vote for Moore for president in 2028. This was only kind of a joke. Climbers have to start somewhere, and Moore chose Georgia State House District 1.
If people get to know him, he said, just listen to him speak, he can cut through concerns about his age. He is urgent. He believes the world, in its natural state, is anarchy. Without strong, brave politicians, the world gets worse. He is afraid to miss the fight.
“Whether it be greed, whether it be extortion, the world is full of very, very dark avenues and dark people,” he said. “I just want to be a light of good. Oftentimes, you cross bad actors. I just hope I am strong enough, mentally and physically, to stand toe to toe with these people.”
“This is Colton Moore,” Deffenbaugh said in a cheery tone at a House luncheon. “And, uh, he’s my opponent.”
Politicians and lobbyists laughed, drowning out Deffenbaugh’s voice. State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, a 16-year veteran of the legislature, stood up and pointed.
“You’re going to get beat!” he shouted, though it wasn’t clear whom he was shouting at.
Deffenbaugh introduced Moore to others at the Capitol; they had similar reactions.
“Don’t teach him everything,” State Rep. Rick Williams, R-Milledgeville, told Deffenbaugh.
“I’ve got underwear older than you,” State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, told Moore.
“You’re his opponent?” State Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston, said. “That … that’s an anomaly.”
“All right …,” Gov. Nathan Deal said, before excusing himself for a meeting.
Why would Deffenbaugh do this?
“Why not?” Deffenbaugh said.
Well, he’s preparing his opponent to take his job. Moore can tell voters he’s seen the legislature up close, gaining valuable experience.
“I guess that could be,” Deffenbaugh said. “My mental capacity is such that I do things sometimes without knowing some of the ramifications of it. But it’s always worked out.”
Deffenbaugh narrowly won the District 1 seat for the first time in 2012. Out of 3,659 votes, he edged Alan Painter by 97. In his first-re-election, he expanded his margin of victory, beating Dade County Commissioner Robert Goff in a runoff by 248 votes. He also faced Democrat Tom McMahan in the general election both of those years, though McMahan could not break 35 percent.
Deffenbaugh did not face any challengers in his last campaign, in 2016.
Since taking office, he has not invited any of his other challengers to the Capitol. But he heard Moore was an energetic young man. Well educated, too. He believed Moore was qualified for the job, at least as much as anyone can be.
“Why not find out who he is, what he’s up to?” Deffenbaugh said.
In his six years in office, Deffenbaugh has rarely grabbed a headline. His seat, assigned by Ralston, is in the back of the chamber. He’s never given a dramatic, inspiring speech from the well. He doesn’t like to publicly question the author of a bill during a session, preferring to talk to them quietly in the hall.
With the exception of a couple local acts — adding a hotel-motel tax in Dade County; changing the Trenton city clerk position from elected to appointed — he has only passed one bill. That legislation, passed in March, will add a 16th member to the Georgia Board of Public Safety.
Deffenbaugh is not an instinctual political animal, by his own admission. His speech is not smooth. Several times during Moore’s visit, he referred to him by the wrong first name. He gets other people’s first and last names mixed up. While telling a story about a former government worker, he asked his wife, “What was his name? He had that Hitler thing.”
“Pete,” Linda Deffenbaugh said. “And don’t tell them about that Hitler thing.”
“Don’t tell them about that Hitler thing?” he asked. “OK.”
The Deffenbaughs met at Covenant College, where John enrolled in 1966 after a stint in the Air Force. For the last 50 years, they’ve lived within a mile of the college. Deffenbaugh sold industrial electronics to companies with big buildings. When the legislature is out of session, he still works a couple days a week.
His political career began in 1997 with the Dade County commission. He lost his re-election in 2000, then lost bids for the county executive seat in 2004 and 2008. He later became the county’s Republican Party Chair. He decided to run for office again when former State Rep. Martin Scott stepped away.
“I’ve always liked service,” he said. “So why not?”
Deffenbaugh takes pride in the simple parts of the job, not the three-dimensional chess other representatives play. He likes helping constituents.
There was once a 68-year-old lady who was having trouble getting a new driver’s license. The woman was born in her home, Deffenbaugh said. She didn’t have a birth certificate to show a Department of Driver Services employee. Deffenbaugh put her in touch with somebody who could work around the problem.
There was another lady, he said, who called him, frustrated that she couldn’t get her brother into a Veterans Affairs nursing home. The woman had reached out to the VA several times and got the run around.
Deffenbaugh said he called an office in Atlanta. Somebody then called somebody else in Washington, D.C. That person relayed a message: The man was approved for placement in the nursing home; a worker had simply failed to file the paperwork.
All it took was a call from an elected official.
“I get answers quicker,” he said. “There’s no reason why that should be so. But it is. I’ve been able to help a lot of people, just with minor things.”
At 10:30 a.m. on March 29, the last day of the legislature, Moore sat in the gallery of the House, waiting for a session to start. It was supposed to begin at 10. But Ralston was not at his seat. Representatives shook hands, slapped backs, laughed at each other’s jokes. It was entirely possible they were discussing pending legislation; it was possible that Moore was too far away to hear the details of their important conversations.
“I’m not impressed,” he said.
State Rep. David Clark dressed like an American flag: a blue suit with white stars and bright red pants. He tilted back in his chair, laughing with a lawmaker behind him. Dunahoo, wearing a seersucker suit, chatted with someone away from his desk.
“He’s just lollygagging,” Moore said. “Having a good time. And my impression is, every time I read the news, that everything is so hectic and so busy on Sine Die. This is the last day to get business done. And here we are, starting this thing 30 minutes late. And we’re playing tiddlywinks, you know? It’s frustrating.”
He continued, “Obviously, this is not punctual. They’re just now starting to pass out different papers. Where is the speaker? Where’s David Ralston? He needs to come down and call his house to order.”
“They’ve had 40 days to exchange pleasantries with each other,” he said. “Is it a social club?”
Above all, Moore appreciates the value of hard work. He doesn’t listen to music. He can’t remember the last TV show he watched. He doesn’t go to the movies. He doesn’t like sports. He doesn’t read, save for an academic article before bed. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, though he hopes to one day meet the right woman — “someone who’s just as passionate as I am.”
Before bed, he wonders if let any time slip away.
“I have a lot of things I want to do in life,” he said. “I don’t know how long I have to live. Every minute of the day, if I’m not working toward getting those things accomplished, then it’s a waste of life.”
He gets this ethic from his father. Walter Moore is the Appalachian man, the special breed who is rugged and independent. He is a hillbilly, Moore said, “as country as cornbread.”
Walter began a truck driving career at 16. After a stint in the Army, he drove trucks to oil fields in Texas and transported steel from Chattanooga to Detroit. He brought loads of cars to auctions throughout the southeast, taking Moore along.
There, Moore became infatuated with the auctioneers. They were at the center of the show, talking rapidly, holding people’s attention, moving product. At 7 years old, he began practicing his own auctioneer chants.
Walter kept him busy. In addition to the trucking jobs, Walter ran a cattle farm on Lookout Mountain. He also cleared land. When he found a good oak tree, he chopped it up and sold it to the timber buyer with the highest price. Moore worked alongside him.
His freshman year at Dade County High School, Gatlin recruited Moore to The Future Business Leaders of America. She was impressed with his people skills. He helped classmates. She watched him move naturally through cliques.
His junior year, out of 20,000 students, delegates elected him vice president of the Georgia chapter of FBLA. He traveled throughout the state, helping train other students for leadership roles. He organized workshops at conferences. Gatlin worried Moore worked too much. The next year, he told her he wanted to be the organization’s president.
“His ambition, what he exhibits,” she said, “it’s so powerful.”
Members of the Georgia FBLA chapter elected him president in 2011. He missed more than 50 days of school his senior year, working at conferences throughout the country. He traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Orlando. He ate continental style, listened to seminars from political speechwriters, learned how Wall Street and K Street policies impacted business.
In college, he won the FBLA public speaking national championship.
His freshman year at the University of Georgia, where he studied international affairs and political science, Moore flew to Dallas for a 10-day auctioneering school. After getting his license, he started working car auctions in Athens, Ga. He practiced his call for hours.
He learned how to create a sense of calm with his cadence at the beginning of a sale, using longer filler words between bids: “Are-you-able-to-buy? Are-you-able-to-buy? Are-you-able-to-buy?” He learned how to create urgency toward the end of a sale, ratcheting his speech from 80 beats per minute to 120, trying to drive up the price in the final moments: “And-take-and-take-and-take-and-take.” His voice grew strong.
Moore left the company in Athens after the boss refused to pay him what he wanted, worked one auction in Atlanta and got recruited to a British company in April 2016, four months before graduating. He later left for an auction company in the Philippines.
He usually works a week or two overseas, then returns to Dade County for about a month. While home, he still works for his father, hauling cattle and clearing land. He proudly calls himself a workaholic. He doesn’t worry whether he’s toiling away in his youth.
“If I’m tired or lonely or worried,” he said, “I’m not working hard enough. When I think, ‘Oh, I’m just depressed.’ Well, I probably need to take my mind off that with some work.”
Michael Gargiulo, his college roommate, said Moore is not always so intense. They used to attend football games, shoot skeet and play a NASCAR video game to unwind. They even — gasp — went to the bar a couple times a week.
It’s just, Gargiulo said, Moore is motivated. He wants to change things, make it so certain bad things won’t happen to other people.
“His family members went through … ” Gargiulo started. He paused. “Different situations.”
Moore sat in a booth at the Metro Cafe Diner in Atlanta, one of those restaurants with a collection of big cakes waiting behind glass. It’s a special place for him. When they were in FBLA, he and Gargiulo ate here after conferences around the block, sometimes talking past Midnight.
He considered his campaign. He hadn’t raised any money yet, and he knows he’s young. But he’s optimistic. He understands Dade County; his father’s family has lived on Lookout Mountain since just after the Civil War. He’s ready to grind through the next couple months, knocking on doors and speaking to civic groups.
He knows what it means to fight through tough times. Back when he was a kid, his family moved into subsidized housing.
“That,” he said, “was quite the turning point in my life.”
“It’s given me all my drive,” he said.
But what happened?
“Going forward in politics, it’s something that I really want to change,” he said. “That issue being said, there’s 100 other issues. There’s thousands of other issues that people are just as passionate about.”
But if there’s something motivating you to run for office, don’t you want voters to know? Don’t you want people to understand where you’re coming from?
Moore took a breath: “It’s criminal justice reform.”
What happened was, in November 1996, a confidential source told the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force commander to check Walter Moore’s business. Investigators entered at night. In a storage room, a drug dog stopped at a box. Inside, wrapped tightly in plastic, they said they found seven packages of marijuana. It weighed about 20 pounds.
Moore was 3 at the time. His father’s trucking company was done. Moore and his mother, Angie, moved out of their home in East Ridge to Trenton’s Edgewood Townhouses, which provided housing to low-income families. Angie took a job on the line at Cooper’s Hosiery Mill in Fort Payne, Ala. They spent their money on lawyers.
From the elementary school playground, Moore watched his father, a jailhouse trusty, mow grass. Two-and-a-half years after his arrest, a jury convicted Walter in April 1999.
Before the sentencing hearing, Walter’s friend picked Moore up and drove him to court. He told Moore this might be the last time he saw his father in a while. Moore brought a drawing of two giraffes, a father and son.
Walter faced 10 years in prison. Ultimately, though, a judge gave him credit for time served in jail and sentenced him to 10 years on probation. Three of those years were intensive probation, meaning he had a curfew. An officer checked on him five days a week.
In the years that followed, the family struggled. Walter’s probation kept him in Trenton. He couldn’t work in trucking and took at a job at a local lumber mill instead. Creditors sued the family for $20,000.
Moore said Walter has maintained he was innocent. Asked about this time in their lives, Angie wrote in an email, “Bad things can happen to good people.”
Nevertheless, Moore said Walter slowly built his business back. The family saved enough money to move out of the Edgewood Townhouses, renting a home on Sand Mountain.
“The friends I had there in the apartment complex,” Moore said, “many of those individuals have been in and out of the criminal justice system. We were both there.”
He pounded his finger on the table and inhaled.
“I often think, had my father went on to prison, would I be just like all those other individuals that I was with there in the apartments? Would I be in and out of the criminal justice system?”
His eyes were red.
“Would I have had the opportunity to succeed at life? So yeah, I mean, that — that — that’s quite, quite … ”
“I was quite blessed to have the father I had.”
He coughed. His voice broke. He was no longer in control.
“I think maybe, maybe, when all that situation happened, he realized he had to do the best job of raising me as he could. You know? I’m proud of him for what he’s done in my life … I remember telling my mom, ‘Whatever it takes. How do we get dad back? How do we get dad back?’ She didn’t have an answer.”
He tried to repress his sobs and pointed outside.
“There’s big, big things to be done in criminal justice reform,” he said. “Big things. There’s a lot of innocent people. There’s a lot of innocent people that get turned around in the criminal justice system today.”
Public defenders’ case loads are too big, he said. He believes too often, prosecutors threaten defendants with long prison sentences. Too often, the defendants are scared and take a lower plea agreement.
“They become convicted felons, many times,” he said. “They can’t go out and get a job, you know? They mess up their entire lives.”
He wants funding for more public defenders, allowing them to spend more time on each case. He also wants to expand conviction integrity units in Georgia. Starting in Dallas in 2007, some counties across the United States have hired groups of prosecutors to review old cases. They search for unjust convictions.
“If I get elected,” Moore said, “I tell you, one of the probably first things I’ll do: I’ll be flying out to Texas to meet with that group and figuring out how they operate.”
Around 6:30 p.m. on March 29, the final hours of the legislative session, Moore walked downstairs from the gallery, to the door of House. A couple of lobbyists sat on a bench together, one man’s arm slung over another’s.
“You are the impeccable southern gentleman,” someone inside the chamber said.
A group stood in a circle, all wearing the same pins — “Vote No on SB 363” and “Vote No on SB 452.” Another group huddled around a TV, showing the action inside the House as lawmakers voted through a conveyor belt of bills. They jotted notes on yellow legal pads, typed text messages. A TV reporter stood in front of a camera, reading notes.
“I’ll just walk,” she told a cameraman, practicing gesturing her arms before her live spot.
On TV, Ralston announced to the chamber that it was time to break for dinner.
“I want to emphasize this point,” he said. “Please be back in your seats by 7:20.”
Legislators rushed out to the hall. Moore stood in the sea of dresses, bow ties and seersucker suits. He hoped to meet Deffenbaugh for dinner. This was one last chance to rub elbows with legislators.
He stood tall in front of the entrance of the House. He arched his eyebrows. His eyes darted between doors, looking for his opponent.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.