Was it fear -- or recklessness -- that took down Georgia legislator?
Posted July 27, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT
WOODBINE, Ga. -- Something shook state Rep. Jason Spencer enough last summer that he dialed the Camden County Sheriff's Office.
He said he'd received "credible threats" against his life, according to a summary of the Aug. 30 call obtained from the agency. Spencer, the bombastic Republican, was out of town, but worried about his wife, who was at their home in a gated community on the marshy outskirts of this Old South town in southeast Georgia.
The Sheriff's Office planned to send two cruisers and notify the chief deputy immediately if Melaney Spencer dialed 911.
She didn't call. The "credible threats" weren't credible after all.
Yet here was Spencer, saying he was afraid.
This was the same man who'd made a political career out of being fearless, who'd fought the Georgia Chamber, the Catholic Church and, yes, even the Boy Scouts; who'd brushed off criticism from Waycross leaders and called a public health inquiry over childhood cancer.
He also seemed to court controversy and make outlandish statements without flinching, such as when he "warned" a black former state lawmaker she might "go missing" in the Okefenokee Swamp if she talked too much about getting rid of Confederate monuments.
Then, last Sunday, came a stunning collapse on national television. In an episode of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's "Who is America?" Spencer shouts the N-word, crudely mocks Chinese people, presses his naked buttocks against a fake ISIS fighter to "make him homosexual" and pretends to chop off -- and eat -- a terrorist's genitals.
To hear Spencer tell it in the only statement he's released since the show, it was fear that took him to the TV filming, because he thought he was there to learn to stop what he felt was an "inevitable attack" against his family, not realizing he was being pranked.
Spencer's actions appear to have ended his political career, leaving those who know him, his constituents and countless others wondering: Could a lawmaker who once seemed so fearless fall to fear alone, or was this the type of disaster he'd long been headed for?
Spencer claims his seat
House District 180 is a sprawling swath of piney woods, swamp and flat land spanning east from downtown Waycross to Cumberland Island.
In eastern Camden County, people love the coastal marsh enough to live right on it, knowing a hurricane may tear at their house, flood it with water reeking from rotten reeds and enough fiddler crabs they'll be picking them out of the cabinets for months.
Farther inland, on Saturday nights at the Woodbine Opry, old couples slow dance to George Jones songs and listen for their number in the cake raffle. In Waycross, tourists board boats in the Okefenokee and hear of a gator so ornery that, one day, he might just eat somebody.
As Spencer (who didn't respond interview requests) has undergone a change, so has the district.
Charlie Smith Jr. represented much of the same area as a Democrat for 10 years until retiring 2002. The district went red with Cecily Hill, who said she prided herself on working across the aisle.
Around 2010, Rachel Baldwin, now the Camden County GOP chair, met Spencer. She recalled him as a father of two then-tiny girls and as a man excited about the tea party movement.
Spencer, in his early 30s, had come from a military family and grown up around Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta. He went to various colleges, including the University of Georgia and Alabama State University. The second is a historically black university that gave Spencer a full scholarship to play tennis, according to his official state biography. He arrived in Camden County in 2005 to work as a physician's assistant.
Baldwin, a retired educator who likes civility, was initially impressed by Spencer's passion.
After he beat Hill in 2010, Baldwin had some hope he'd be good leader and push for the economic growth the district needs.
Trouble in Atlanta
The man's attitude and tone in the statehouse were quickly problems for Baldwin. She said she saw Spencer acting like a wrecking ball pounding the building. He alienated even his own party's leadership.
"Face it," Baldwin said, "when you go to Atlanta, you gotta make friends. Instead of looking inward and asking, 'What can I do to engage these folks?,' he looked out and said, 'It's the Atlanta Machine. Everybody's against us.'"
But Spencer knew how to win voters. He was re-elected in 2012 and in 2014.
"I have never seen an elected official who can provide service to constituents the way Jason does," Baldwin said. "If you call him with a problem, he will call you back."
He backed some issues many could support.
In 2015, he successfully pushed the Hidden Predator Act, which opened a two-year window for alleged victims of sex abuse to sue the suspects, regardless of the statute of limitations.
A few months later, he publicly called for an investigation in Waycross after, in a span of 58 days, four children were diagnosed with extremely rare cancers.
The spark that lit fear
In late 2016, Spencer was preparing for the start of his fourth term when, Baldwin says, he mentioned two things he intended to get done: progress on the area's "spaceport" plan and funding for a technical college.
He didn't mention he was about to file House Bill 3.
It would've limited when and where Muslim women could wear burqas. Facing national backlash, Spencer explained that the legislation resulted from constituents' fears of terrorism. Baldwin was among the critics, urging him to focus on issues relevant to constituents.
Spencer withdrew the bill but got "countless" death threats over it, he said in the statement, adding that his wife also got calls threatening her and their daughters. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could not independently verify that Spencer received threats)
His fear escalated after June 14, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on GOP congressional members practicing for a charity baseball game in Virginia.
"I knew people on that field," Spencer said.
Spencer said he became convinced an attack loomed, that his state of mind deteriorated so much he and his wife got counselling.
Then Showtime offered an opportunity: self-defense training from a veteran Israeli fighter. It isn't clear when the segment was filmed, but Baldwin said she understands it was about a year ago.
"My fears were so heightened," Spencer said, "I was not thinking clearly ..."
Afterward, he realized he'd been tricked by Cohen. But the world wouldn't get to see the result yet.
A change in Spencer?
In August 2017, Spencer faced another national controversy after his grim "warning" to LaDawn Jones, who had sat near Spencer in the House. Jones later said she enjoyed debating with Spencer, but he'd gone too far.
Spencer decided to run for re-election this year and faced a GOP challenger: Steven Sainz, 24, who is executive director of a community nonprofit. Sainz billed himself as kinder, gentler but effective.
During the legislative session, Spencer sought to renew the Hidden Predator Act.
Esther Panitch, an Atlanta attorney who'd worked cases that rose from the first version of the bill, testified on the new legislation's behalf, about how it had helped suicidal victims find hope. She said Spencer was a tireless advocate for the victims.
When the act failed, he put a photo on Facebook of a child with a mouth taped shut.
As the May primary approached, there were several debates and forums, and Baldwin noticed something strange.
Spencer seemed nervous. He was shaking, she said.
After seeing the Cohen video, Baldwin said she wonders if Spencer was afraid someone would hear about the show and humiliate him by mentioning it.
The video stayed a secret, but Spencer still lost to Sainz, who has no Democratic challenger.
There are actually two Spencer videos online.
The most viewed shows Spencer pretend to be a Chinese tourist taking a photo of the genitals of a person in a burqa, to see if it's a man. It shows him holler a racial epithet because Cohen suggests it would be a good way to get attention in an attack. It shows Spencer place his bare backside on Cohen, because Cohen suggests terrorists are scared of becoming gay.
The second video is titled, "A MESSAGE TO TERRORISTS." Spencer stares into the camera pointing a knife, screaming a racist slur, his eyes intense. After pretending to cut and bite off a terrorist's genitals, he asks how they'll come rape American women and children now.
The reactions back home:
Charlie Smith: horrified, dumbfounded, praying the show wouldn't mention Camden County.
Haylee Metts, whose late daughter, 6, was among the sick kids near Waycross: "Shocked and just can't even put any words together."
Panitch: "I know what my eyes saw. I know what my ears heard. And it's difficult to reconcile."
Donald Bailey, a black local retiree: felt reminded that racism is still alive.
Cecily Hill: incredulous that anyone could behave so foolishly.
Asked if she was surprised by the video, Baldwin fell silent, sitting at the Kingsland Applebee's. She looked down at the table, fiddled with a drinking straw wrapper.
"I really wasn't surprised," she finally said. "I was more disgusted."
'Voice of the People'
Baldwin said she doesn't think Spencer is a racist, just gullible and wildly insensitive. She has a hard time believing fear alone did this.
Baldwin and others worry he will give outsiders the wrong impression of Camden County, the district and Georgia.
Spencer on Monday apologized for the "ridiculously ugly" display but resisted calls to step down.
On Tuesday night, facing heavy pressure from members of both parties, he sent a terse resignation letter to House Speaker David Ralston.
On Wednesday, a billboard from Spencer's last campaign remained on the edge of Woodbine. In red large letters, it called him, "The Voice of the People."
The people of this district?
Story Filed By Cox Newspapers
For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service