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In South Georgia, hard times and a push to 'secede'

BLACKSHEAR, Ga. -- Will South Georgia rise again? That's the hope of Pierce County GOP leaders and a sizeable chunk of Republican voters here who want the counties south of Macon to secede from Georgia and form a new state.

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Aaron Holmes
, Cox Newspapers

BLACKSHEAR, Ga. -- Will South Georgia rise again? That's the hope of Pierce County GOP leaders and a sizeable chunk of Republican voters here who want the counties south of Macon to secede from Georgia and form a new state.

The provocative question appeared on ballots in the Pierce County Republican primary last month: Should the counties south of Macon join together to "form the 51st state of South Georgia?"

As results came in, the referendum received even more support than its backers anticipated -- over 27 percent of GOP voters answered yes.

Now, Republican activists who put the question on the Pierce County ballot say they plan to organize similar referendums throughout South Georgia. And while the ballot question was initially intended as tongue-in-cheek, it reflects a genuine sentiment: As lawmakers in Atlanta tout Georgia's rapid economic growth, voters in rural counties and those far from the capital are feeling left behind.

"There's some frustration down here that's no different from frustration anywhere else in rural Georgia," said Robert M. Williams Jr., the editor of the Blackshear Times in Pierce County. "Rural Georgia is suffering. We hear about an economic resurgence, but we're not seeing it here."

About 19,300 people live in Pierce County, where the population is growing significantly slower than it is statewide. From 2012 to 2016, 54.5 percent of residents were in the civilian labor force, compared to 62.3 percent statewide, according to data from the U.S. census.

And health care looks different here than in the rest of the state -- 14.8 percent of residents under 65 live with a disability, compared with 8.8 statewide, but about 17 percent of that age group doesn't have health insurance in Pierce County, compared with 14.8 percent across Georgia.

Blackshear, the seat of Pierce County, is a quiet town with restaurants, shops, and other businesses clustered around the railroad tracks in its center. The number of locally owned mom-and-pop stores has steadily declined in recent years, according to long-term residents, making way for chains like Dollar General and Family Dollar.

Kay Godwin, the head of the Pierce County GOP, said that the referendum to secede from Georgia was initially intended as a joke, but stemmed from real frustration among voters in the majority-Republican county.

As one example, she points out that some rural areas in Georgia still don't have access to high-speed internet, despite years of promises from politicians (a bill was signed in March that sets up a framework for expanding rural internet access, but does not come with any state funding).

"South Georgia is just not on their minds. We're dismissed without even considering to sit down with us and talk," Godwin said.

"Now that we got some attention with this, it's about continuing that process and moving it on up the ladder until we get it to a point until something's actually going to improve. ... My goal for the next two years is to educate the people from Macon down, and I'm going to try to get it on every single ballot."

The plight of Georgia's rural communities has caught the attention of state legislators. Leaders of the Georgia House of Representatives, including lawmakers from South Georgia, outlined a plan in January to help rural counties by paying to move people to the country, bolstering small hospitals, and growing business opportunities, in addition to the first steps taken on expanding internet. However, many of these changes have not yet taken root, and skeptics question how effective the plan will be.

Blackshear Mayor Pro-tem Mary Lott Walker said she voted "yes" on the ballot question. While Walker doesn't expect the 51st state of South Georgia to become a reality, she hopes the vote will pressure lawmakers in Atlanta to pay closer attention to the needs of rural Georgia.

She also believes Middle Georgia counties should look to South Georgia's aquifers as a more valuable resource.

"We have the water. And that's nothing to sneeze about," Walker said. "We know who we are, and we know what we need. We need them to listen."

Sitting at a table in Jerry J's Country Diner in Blackshear last week, Walker and Godwin built on one another's enthusiasm, listing the ways they believe a hypothetical secession from Georgia could act as a catch-all solution to South Georgia's problems. They point to the current ballot initiative to divide California as a successful, similar example.

The capital would be Savannah, they say, sparing concerned citizens the four-hour drive they currently have to make it to Atlanta to testify at the statehouse. Counties would be redrawn smaller and would carry more weight in the new state's legislature, countering the decreasing influence on elections rural counties have seen from population decline.

That new legislature, they imagine, would more effectively fight to lower farming costs and bolster the diminishing job prospects faced by rural Georgians.

"It's getting harder and harder for our farmers to make a living. The cost of fertilizer's gone up. The labor is harder to get down here," Godwin said. "If you have the right people working hard on it, our own state could be a wonderful thing for South Georgia."

But even as they speculate about what secession could bring, Walker and Godwin are quick to reassert that they do not believe it will ever happen. Even if it garnered popular support in South Georgia, forming a new state would require an amendment to the Georgia Constitution, approved by two thirds of both houses of the state legislature, and admission as the 51st state of the U.S. would require approval by Congress.

"It's just a fun thing. It won't be a reality," Walker said. "But it might, you never know."

For many in Blackshear, the ballot question reflects an alienation they feel from the politics and culture of the metro Atlanta area, which is home to more than half of Georgia's population.

"There already is a divided Georgia," said Linda Gail Dennison of Blackshear, who voted yes on secession. "From Macon down we get nothing and we're tired of it. Something needs to get done. I've just gotten so disgruntled."

As she waited for her appointment in Barbara's Beauty Boutique in Blackshear last week, Jackie Ward said she thinks South Georgians are looked down upon by those in the North. While she did not vote for secession, she said, a disconnect exists.

"We hear a lot from people up there that don't know a thing about what it's like down south. They express opinions that are not based on facts," Ward said.

John Stephens, a retired teacher and coach in Blackshear, said he missed the primary due to health issues and is unsure how he would have voted on the secession referendum. But Stephens feels lawmakers holding statewide office are unaccountable to voters here in Pierce County.

"I never hear the word 'constituency' anymore. Now it's all about party. But we keep electing the same folk and putting them back in there," Stephens said. "We ought to get a group and go to the Capitol and raise enough Cain that everyone has to pay attention to us."

Motivated by the traction it gained in this primary, GOP organizers in Blackshear are confident that the secession question will appear on more ballots in 2020. Godwin, who has organized statewide Republican coalitions and served as George W. Bush's grass-roots chair for the state of Georgia during his campaign, has plans to promote the idea throughout the southern half of the state.

While the ballot question on forming a new state is new, residents already speak of two Georgias: one that exists in the orbit of Atlanta and its economic boom, and the one that exists here, where many residents have lived their entire lives.

"It's been a joke for a number of years in South Georgia. Every time people speak to us, the first question is, 'How far are you from Atlanta?'" Williams said. "Well, we're pretty dang far, and not getting any closer."

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