Originally created 01/05/03

Leader is awed by year's success



Max Burns, Georgia's 12th District U.S. representative-elect, sat in a lounge chair in the living room of his country home in Screven County last week and marveled at the events of the past year.

"I'm not a politician. I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a country boy," he said beneath the halo of light from a nearby floor lamp.

He's not kidding.

He really is a country boy, albeit a now very sophisticated country boy, one with a doctorate in business administration and a resume that includes study and teaching at universities throughout the world.

The 54-year-old college professor, who will be sworn in as a new member of Congress on Tuesday, lives in a cedar-siding house beside a cow pasture off Georgia Highway 24. He and his wife, Lora, built the house, shaded by towering pecan and oak trees, when they returned to the family farm in Screven County in 1983. They wanted to give their two sons, Andrew and Nathan, the benefits of growing up in the only place their father ever wants to be.

"I visited Hawaii once on an academic conference," he had said earlier in the day as he turned his car onto the grounds of Jackson Baptist Church, where his grandparents and parents are buried. "When I came back, one of the staff in the Screven County Commission office said, 'How was Hawaii?' And I said, 'Well, it's not my favorite place.'

"And they said, 'Where is your favorite place?' I said, 'Screven County. This is my favorite place."'

He has been a member of the church in the Jackson community all of his life. He went to school in the red brick Jackson Elementary School across the road until the school system consolidated when he was in the third grade. His father donated the land for the school. Mr. Burns bought the property back a few years ago and now stores hay in it.

"I have spent my life reassembling the family farm," he said.

A white frame house his grandfather built still stands adjacent to the school.

There's nothing fancy about the Burnses or their house. The kitchen table and buffet are well-worn antiques that belonged to Mr. Burns' grandparents. The other furniture is sturdy and simple. A wood-burning heater sits in the living-room fireplace below a mantel that holds family photographs. Two herding dogs romp in the yard, and two cats make themselves at home on the screened-in back porch.

As the sun sank into a red sky visible through the wall of windows in the room, the Burnses recounted the events of the past eight months.

When Republican candidate Cleve Mobley dropped out in May, people began asking Mr. Burns to run. Speculation grew around Screven County, and the pressure mounted, but the couple had not told their sons.

Mr. Burns and the boys were in the cow lot one morning when the phone started ringing incessantly, prompting Mrs. Burns to take action.

"Lora came up, and she pulled me aside and she said, 'You've got to tell them. The phone's still ringing,"' Mr. Burns said. "And so we just stopped in the middle of the cow lot and said, 'Boys, we've got to talk to you about something."'

"We were so serious, they thought it was my health," Mrs. Burns said. "I'm a breast cancer survivor. We said, 'NO, no, no. This is something different."'

"So that's how our family first was exposed to the fact that we may be running," Mr. Burns said, laughing. "In the cow lot. It's true. You can't make up things like this."

Mr. Burns defeated Republican Barbara Dooley, the wife of University of Georgia Athletics Director Vince Dooley, in the primary election. He went on to defeat Democrat Charles Walker Jr., the son of state Sen. Charles Walker, in the general election. The bitter campaign prompted Mr. Walker to file a libel and slander lawsuit against Mr. Burns over his ads. That suit is still pending.

Mrs. Burns said they had no idea how the election would change their lives.

"We had no idea how to run a campaign," she said. "We didn't know how much money it took. I mean, we were shocked three days later when he came home and said, 'This is how much we've got to raise this year."'

But Mr. Burns said "it was just meant to be."

"If you look at it logically, I shouldn't have won the primary," he said. Most people who run for Congress have more political experience, he noted.

"We're novices," he said. "We have friends now who are part of the freshman class who in some cases have run for Congress two and three times before they won their seat."

He got into politics when he was elected president of his eighth-grade homeroom class, a landslide victory he attributes to the punch and cookies he dispensed on the playground during the campaign.

"I think it had to be those cookies," he said with a laugh.

He served on the Screven County Commission from 1993 through 1998, when he was defeated because of a controversial zoning and land-use management plan he supported, he said.

In 1993, there were virtually no black employees in county government, but that had changed by the time he left.

"We had some issues around how to get African-Americans and other minorities into the work force on a county level," Screven County NAACP activist Karen Watson said. "Some of the persons here did not want to see that happen. Maxie was very clear about coming across and saying, 'Ya'll, it's simply the right thing to do. We can no longer live in a county where certain populations are totally excluded from the political process or from working in county offices."'

Mr. Burns took a lot of heat for his position, she said.

"Maxie was very standup about that at a time when, quite frankly, it was not a popular position," she said. "So Maxie may be Republican. Maxie may be white, but I look at Maxie from a perspective of what kind of man is this. Maxie is a good man, as far as I know."

Most people you ask in Screven County agree.

"I knew him when he was a little boy jumping out of the bread truck his daddy drove," said Helen Reddick, the owner of Fad R Fashion on Main Street in downtown Sylvania. "I worked at Bazemore's Food Store across the street, and his daddy made him work, taught him what making an honest living was all about.

"He has good morals. He had a good mother and daddy. They instilled them in him. He's not selfish. He likes to do things for other people. That's how I judge a person's worth."

Classmates Earlette Bazemore Shipes and Screven County Manager Rick Jordan said Mr. Burns has always been a leader.

"He was very smart," Mr. Jordan said. "He was in the top of the class every year. Maxie is a go-getter. What he believes in, he's strongly committed to. All in all, you won't find a more sincere, straightforward, straight-laced person. Maxie has very high morals. He's a Christian man. And I respect that."

During an orientation session for new House members in Washington after the election, Mr. Burns was elected president of the freshman class.

Although the Burnses were unprepared for the events of the past year, they believe they're on the right path.

"I'm convinced I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," he said. "I'm where I'm supposed to be."

IN HIS OWN WORDS

The following are excerpts from The Chronicle's interview with 12th District Rep. Max Burns:

Background:

"I left Screven County in 1967 when I graduated from high school. ... You go off and you look for something. The more you look for it, the more you realize you left it back at home."

The Election:

"If you get through the primary and you work very hard for three months and you're not successful, you go back to being normal. The only thing that changes your life forever is if you win.

"... I've got to restructure all my personal life now in order to accommodate public service, which is fine."

Congress:

"Everyone says you change in Washington. I hope that that will not be said of me in two years or four years or eight years or however long it might be."

BURNS' OFFICES

Rep. Max Burns' constituent offices:

AUGUSTA: 2743 Perimeter Parkway, Building 200, Suite 130, Augusta, Ga., 30909

SAVANNAH: 6605 Abercorn St., Suite 102, Savannah, Ga., 31405

Addresses for the Athens and Statesboro offices have not been announced.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.