ATLANTA - Tapping into widespread disapproval of Congress, David Perdue campaigns as a candidate from the outside with fresh ideas and perspective.
It makes a stark contrast between him and his GOP Senate runoff opponent Jack Kingston, a 22-year veteran of the House of Representatives from Savannah. Since Perdue spent his career in the executive suites of major corporations rather than politics, he’s not a stranger to the inner sanctums of power.
He headed corporations like Reebok and Dollar General and sat on the boards of influential trade groups like the National Retail Association. His cousin, Georgia’s first modern-times Republican governor, appointed him to the board of the Georgia Ports Authority.
The important thing, he says, is that he hasn’t been in Congress like Kingston and three other primary opponents.
“If they were going to make a difference, wouldn’t they have done it by now?” he asks, adding that the Founding Fathers envisioned citizen-legislators rather than career politicians.
Perdue grew up in rural, Warner Robins, Ga., in the home of two educators who spent many days toiling on his grandfather’s farm. He worked his way through Georgia Tech. Rising in the corporate world required many moves, including years overseas heading international divisions.
His career didn’t allow time for political volunteering, but it did provide lessons on balancing budgets, leading coalitions and reacting to government policies. It also paid him millions of dollars that bought his retirement home on exclusive Sea Island, resulting in charges that he has no connection with everyday Georgians.
“If I were out of touch, there is no way that I would have been successful in a competitive business career,” he said, adding that he could have never marketed to bargain-conscious consumers at Dollar General or motivated rank-and-file Reebok employees without an understanding of their needs.
The biggest misunderstanding of the campaign, according to Perdue, is that he genuinely cares about people.
What he has been out of touch with, undeniably, is the phraseology of conservative activists.
“The vocabulary of politics is just unbelievable,” he laments. “You just have to be so careful, I believe, with the terminology.”
His imprecise rambles created many verbal snares that have repeatedly come back to trip him up. Various statements have been replayed to make him seem to be a snob, an advocate for tax increases, supporter of gun control and the Common Core school standards and an opponent of repealing the Dodd-Frank banking law that many Republicans loath.
Perdue has gone to great pains to repeat what he meant to say, which is that he opposes tax increases and wants to fill the government’s coffers through economic growth, that he would repeal Dodd-Frank in an instant if the Senate had enough votes, that he actually opposes Common Core and that he’s really a nice guy.
His business career has also come under scrutiny. Kingston says it’s nothing to brag about.
“Here’s my opponent that presided over the biggest layoff in textile history and then goes to Dollar General where it lost 66 percent of its value,” he said. “He’s not the guy I would call in to fix the budget.”
Perdue, though, proudly lists his time at Dollar General as a corporate turnaround, arguing he is the one who restored it to prosperity.
Kingston’s ads attack Perdue for serving on the board of a company that accepted federal stimulus funds and on the board of the National Retail Association when a subsidiary board independently passed a resolution supporting an amnesty policy for undocumented aliens.
“This is a real stretch,” Perdue said of the amnesty charge. “I would not support the Senate bill because of the amnesty portion of that bill.”
One of his strongest supporters is Alec Poitevint, a former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and an animal-feed shipper who served with Perdue on the Ports Authority board. Poitevint was personal friends with other candidates in the race that he disappointed by backing Perdue.
“He became a successful person, yet his roots are in public education and rural Georgia,” he said, listing sincerity and dedication as key traits. “I like the humble background he came from. He’s got that red clay of Middle Georgia underneath his fingernails.”