Why you should care
Because we will find out whether the Trump model can be repeated.
The media, the lobbyists, the big corporations are all put on notice over the course of his stump speech. “One of the first things I want to do,” the outsider candidate says, “is blow up this rigged system.” But coming from hybrid-sedan-driving suburban dad Michael Williams, the words don’t sound much like Donald Trump’s — whose playbook this unlikely candidate for governor strives to follow. “My personality isn’t really one that blends well with being a politician,” Williams tells OZY. “I’m kind of a reserved accountant.”
He’s also an almost unknown Georgia state senator competing in a Republican primary that includes two statewide officeholders, a challenge that comes without Trump’s instant name identification or wall-to-wall media coverage. OZY, in fact, is the only news media presence in Hartwell as Williams delivers his rage against the Atlanta machine to about two dozen members of the local Republican Party on a recent Wednesday evening. The GOP regulars in this lakeside town react warmly to what Williams refers to as his “automatic street cred” — he was the first elected official to endorse Trump in Georgia, way back in September 2015.
In the audience sits Mike Buckel, who takes pride that he was among the first in town to erect a Trump sign, and he likes Williams’ pitch. “It’s impossible to be too conservative,” Buckel adds. The anti-establishment mood the president rode to office is hardly going away. And in the ongoing debate of whether the Trump model works for anyone other than the branding maven himself, Georgia provides a test product with vastly different packaging.
Trump is a showman, whereas Michael Williams looks like a kindergartner doing his first parents’ day pageant.
Brian Robinson, adviser to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle
Williams, 43, enjoys telling the crowd the origin tale of his business career: buying his first stock at age 8 in the Central Louisiana Electric Co., where his dad, Donald, worked. The painful, unmentioned postscript comes six years later, when Donald killed himself. Williams figures it was the result of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Vietnam and manic depression, for which his father received uneven care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Michael held on to his early fondness for numbers, crunching spreadsheets for accounting firm Arthur Andersen and apparel giant VF Corp. After tiring of the corporate life, he bought up franchises of Sport Clips hair salons, in part because he liked going there for haircuts.
He sold his 18 franchises when he got an offer too good to turn down. Frustrated at the government regulatory hurdles to getting into the insurance business, his new challenge became politics. Williams put more than $300,000 of his own money into a 2014 primary challenge of his state senator, a powerful committee chairman. In the process he faced a public airing of records from a nasty divorce and custody battle, including accusations by his ex-wife that Williams spent large sums on strippers and prostitutes and attempted suicide by driving into a hurricane. The claims, which Williams says were bogus — a judge sided with him in the custody dispute — didn’t stick: Williams won the primary runoff with two-thirds of the vote.
His bombastic political consultant, Seth Weathers, was already in Williams’ ear about running for governor. At first he thought a run was lunacy, but after becoming disillusioned with the lobbyist-fueled agenda among Republicans in the Capitol and seeing that Trump’s win opened a path, he agreed.
But railing against the state income tax, tax credit giveaways to big business and the horrendous waste found in state audit reports will only get you so far. Williams has tried to juice up interest by bringing along reality-TV star Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman and Trump confidant Roger Stone for campaign events. He turned up at a fringe rally against Shariah law. Lately, as protests sweep the South, he’s leaped in defense of Confederate monuments — not unlike Corey Stewart, a Trump ally who narrowly lost a GOP primary race for Virginia governor in June.
Williams’ defining moments on the trail thus far have been his attacks on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, which have proven controversial but without the zing of “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz or “Little Marco” Rubio. In a speech at the Georgia GOP convention, Williams accused Cagle of trying to buy him out of the race by offering Williams, via an unnamed intermediary, a coveted committee chairmanship. Williams later staged a state Capitol press conference hyped as an exposé on a Cagle scandal, but which ended up a winding tale about how the lieutenant governor likely helped sideline bills Williams proposed to increase sheriffs’ pay. The stunts produced widespread ridicule in media and political circles, but at least people were talking about him.
Cagle adviser Brian Robinson dismisses the chairmanship offer as “a lie” and disparages Williams’ stage presence when compared to that of the president: “Trump is a showman, whereas Michael Williams looks like a kindergartner doing his first parents’ day pageant.” Fellow senator Josh McKoon, who has not endorsed in the governor’s race, says he and many other Senate colleagues found Williams eager to learn and easy to get along with, but the evidence-free Cagle charge “is something that’s going to concern a lot of people.”
Williams, branding himself as “fearless” in taking on the establishment, says he will reveal more about Cagle later, while he derides another primary foe, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, as likable but incompetent. He’s already pledged $1 million of his own money to the campaign, but he can’t match his well-connected rivals in the fundraising game. By election time, Williams says, he hopes to establish himself “not necessarily as mini-Trump, but as Michael Williams, who has these firm principles and policies that he’s going to fight for, but in his own style.” For now, soft-spoken mini-Trump will have to do.