Wade Herring
Wade Herring Credit: Craig Nelson/The Current

The storming of the U.S. Capitol, the assault on voting rights, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and a fresh reckoning on race in America, the precarious state of health care: Amid such ferment, the usual stakes and labels in politics don’t apply.

So says Wade Herring, a 63-year-old Savannah lawyer seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to face Earl “Buddy” Carter, the four-term incumbent from Pooler, in this fall’s race for coastal Georgia’s seat in Congress. Speaking to a gathering of voters on the Isle of Hope on a recent Sunday afternoon, Herring said November’s vote isn’t about whether you’re a Republican or Democrat (“a R or a D”). Rather, he said:

“It’s about autocracy or democracy. It’s about common sense and common decency. It’s about treating other people the way that you would want to be treated instead of ostracizing them and making them the ‘other.’ ” The challenge is plain, he continued. “We’re stuck in a bad place, but we have a choice. We can move. We can do better than we’re doing.” 

Herring first spoke with The Current seven months ago, shortly after declaring his candidacy. In that interview, he described how he decided to run after watching Carter take to the floor of the House of Representatives just hours after hours after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and vote to overturn the election results in his own state. In seeking to demonstrate his loyalty to Donald Trump, Carter had “put politics above our country, our district and our families,” Herring said. 

As part of The Current’s series of Q&A interviews with the First District Congressional candidates, we spoke with Herring again last month at his campaign office in on Drayton Street in Savannah and again earlier this week. We talked about why he thinks Carter’s reelection isn’t a foregone conclusion and why the four-term congressman is “no simple pharmacist from Pooler.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed why he doesn’t believe we live in a post-racial society and how a former Savannah mayor has been an inspiration.

Buddy Carter is seeking a fifth term as coastal Georgia’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. Carter won by 21.8% of the vote in 2014, 15.4% in 2018, and 16.6% in 2020. He ran unopposed in 2016. Political professionals and analysts say that these winning margins mean that the First District seat a “safe” Republican seat in 2022. Why do you believe Carter isn’t a shoo-in this fall?

As financial investment people say, past performance is not indicative of future results, and past performance in the First District isn’t indicative of what I think we’ll see in 2022. 

Mr. Carter has never been tested by a serious candidate who can take it to him. I’m a serious candidate who will take my message to Mr. Carter and hold him accountable. Mr. Carter has embraced Mr. Trump very tightly, and there are many moderate, non-Trump Republicans who are, quite frankly, very concerned about that. They’ll be looking for a choice in November. 

Furthermore, this year’s race in the First District is also different because the Democratic Party of Georgia and the Democratic National Committee are paying attention to it in ways they haven’t in the past. One reason is that it appears Democrats will lose a congressional seat in the Atlanta area because of redistricting. Another reason is the energy generated by the presence of Stacey Abrams and Sen. Warnock on the ballot. I expect the Democratic Party to undertake a concerted effort to win up and down the ticket, including support for the Democratic candidate for Congress from the First District.

Finally, the race here is different this year because of the importance of Georgia elections nationwide. Democratic votes count here in ways they haven’t in recent years. More and more voters in coastal Georgia don’t like what’s happened with Mr. Carter and Mr. Trump, and they want to make a change.

Besides Buddy Carter’s conduct around the events of Jan. 6, why do you believe he’s no longer cut out be coastal Georgia’s representative in Congress? 

Mr. Carter has used his time in elected office to become one of the wealthiest people in Congress. When I say this to people who’ve spent their lives in this district, they’re surprised. His personal enrichment didn’t start with his election to Congress — he was the mayor of Pooler for nine years and served 10 years in the Georgia State Assembly before his election to Congress. 

Mr. Carter isn’t a simple pharmacist from Pooler. He’s basically an inside lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. He has opposed Medicare negotiating drug prices. He has opposed the Affordable Care Act. He has opposed the expansion of Medicaid. Why? Whose interest is he serving? 

In May 2018, Mr. Carter purchased nearly 500 acres of property for $2 million in Camden County, opposite the proposed Spaceport Camden site. A month later, he led Georgia’s congressional delegation in requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration fast-track its approval of the project. He later said that he bought the property for hunting and fishing, not as an investment, and therefore wasn’t required to disclose the purchase to the FAA, to other members of Congress, to constituents through his Congressional financial disclosure forms. More recently, he and his wife have sued Camden County over the tax valuation on that piece of property. 

This pattern of behavior, of Mr. Carter is a career politician who has used his time in elected office to enrich himself, is reprehensible. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a Democrat running against him in the First District that has held him accountable. I will. I’m not going to be a career politician. While I serve in Congress, I’m going to mentor people here in the district to build some bench strength and pass the torch. I’m not going to be a career politician.

In political campaign-speak, do you believe that you can redefine or rebrand Carter in the eyes of the voters of the First District? He has a reputation for providing good constituent services.

I don’t need to redefine Mr. Carter; he’s defined himself. He’s tied the rope around himself and Trump and cinched the knot. 

Mr. Carter has been reelected four times to Congress because he hasn’t faced someone who can challenge his record in representing the interests of coastal Georgians in Washington. When I introduce myself to eligible voters, saying I’m running against Buddy Carter, over and over again they immediately reply, “You have my vote. He’s a Trump.” 

I’ve heard about Mr. Carter’s reputation for providing good constituent services. But the feedback I’ve received from local officials is that he isn’t present in a way that he’s offering any kind of substantive service to local governments. In this way, he isn’t present in Chatham County, and he isn’t present in Liberty County. These are the two biggest counties in the First District. 

I’ve listened to what residents of the First District want from their representative in Congress, and what I’ve heard repeatedly is that Mr. Carter frequently responds to constituent requests with, “I can’t help you on that. Or, he says, “They have not told me how to vote,” referring to the Republican leadership in the House.

As for how my message gets out, it’s traditional, face-to-face, on-the-ground retail politics. But I also need to raise money to get on TV, which a Democrat has never been able to do in this district. Obviously, I can’t meet all 765,000 people in the district, so I have to get on TV. My goal is to raise money to pay for those things. 

Are you concerned that by the time voters go to the polls on May 24, for the primary, and Nov. 8, for the general election, that the events of the first week of 2021 will seem like ancient history? 

I think they’ll still matter. What happened Jan. 6 and what Mr. Carter did was abhorrent. When he was interviewed much later by HBO for their documentary, “Four Hours at the Capitol,” he says, “Oh, I would do it 100 times over again.” This is what he says after he’s had time for reflection and thought. But what he says to the camera in the documentary! So yes, I think to remind the voters of what he did with Jan. 6, and the events leading up to it and what happened afterward, will remain important. 

It’s more than just Jan. 6, of course. It’s what Mr. Carter hasn’t done on health care. It’s what he hasn’t done on education. It’s his vote against the infrastructure bill. So, it’s things he hasn’t done. He hasn’t been a representative for the people of this district. He hasn’t been a leader for anyone in this district. I think the voters know that already. And when I get on television, I’ll certainly remind them. 

The economic news is bleak. Inflation as measured by the consumer price index hit a 40-year high of 7.5% this week. Are you concerned that the state of the economy is going to overshadow the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, which you’ve described as the main reason for entering the race?

I remain concerned about Jan. 6 and its aftermath. I think voters who are paying attention understand the ongoing concerns about it. What happened that day wasn’t some spontaneous demonstration. It was premeditated, it was planned, it was coordinated. As I’ve said before, one of my law partners came into my office the next day and said, “It can’t get worse than this.” I looked at her and said, “It can get worse than this.” And it did.

Last January, we saw the Georgia General Assembly approve legislation making it harder to vote. The General Assembly has already started trying to take over the voting apparatus in Fulton County. 

There’s also redistricting, when new congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn based on new census data. What typically happens is that local maps, if they’re approved by the local delegation, are accepted by the Georgia House of Representatives. But the Republican-dominated House has already rejected Gwinnett County’s map and is going to rewrite it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out which counties could be next: Chatham, Richmond, Bibb, Muscogee, Fulton. My concern about who controls the election—and whose voice gets to be counted and heard—continues. This concern was a motivation for me to run.

But Jan. 6 and attempts to subvert voting rights aren’t the only reasons I’m running. I’m also running to make sure the First District gets its fair share of federal funding for infrastructure, and that local companies get their fair chance to bid and participate on those jobs that are going to come here. Let’s acknowledge the reality of climate change. Let’s invest in health care on the front end and focus on preventative care so that people live longer, healthier lives. Let’s invest in education and the economy. 

Inflation is, of course, a concern, but the economy is strong. The media likes a simple narrative. One reason we’re having mass resignations is that people know they can go get another job. People don’t simply quit their jobs when they don’t have the possibility of getting another. There’s a labor shortage partly because the economy is strong and partly because people have the confidence and the courage to start their own businesses, their small business applications and permits are way, way up. 

Is inflation a concern? Of course, it is. But the economy isn’t weak. It’s going gangbusters. I don’t think inflation is going to overwhelm or overshadow the other reasons I’m running for Congress.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has transformed the global landscape, including the political landscape here in the U.S. In Chatham County, we see large billboards urging: “Praying for Ukraine!” Why is a war in Europe important in this election?

What’s going on in Ukraine underscores the importance of a strong U.S. military. We in the First District understand that as well as anybody because we’re home to Hunter Army Air Field, Fort Stewart and the Kings Bay Naval Base. Furthermore, the invasion underscores the importance of NATO and other alliances. America must be engaged in the world but can’t do so alone. Therefore, we need alliances like NATO. 

What the Republicans have done, their criticism of Biden’s response to the invasion, is extraordinary and audacious. After all, it was Trump who repeatedly denigrated the NATO. It was Trump who, with Putin standing next to him in Helsinki in 2018, said he believed the former KGB officer more than America’s own intelligence agencies. It is Trump who has repeatedly praised Putin. If Putin got a wrong signal from anybody about how the U.S. or any other nation would respond to an invasion of Ukraine, he got it from Mr. Trump, Mr. Carter and their wing of the Republican Party.

In the general election, the Democratic candidate must win by wide margins in the Democratic strongholds of Chatham County and Glynn County and peel off moderate Republican votes elsewhere in the district.  

Yes, that’s the formula: Get Democratic voters to turn out by underscoring how important Georgia has become in the overall national political landscape and how much more their vote now counts. Then you get those Republicans who are concerned and dissatisfied about what’s happened to their party, especially with Mr. Carter and Mr. Trump.

How much dissatisfaction? We’ll see what happens with the Republican primary in May. We’ve got a Trump ticket versus moderate, non-Trump Republicans, although even middle-of-the-road Republicans are more conservative than those of the past. 

Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, I give voters a serious choice for someone to send to Washington. I’m an alternative to Republicans dissatisfied with Mr. Carter, Mr. Trump and the direction of their party. I’m the right choice for Democrats who didn’t vote Democrat in the past two elections because they didn’t think the party’s candidate, whether it was Lisa Ring or Joyce Griggs, adequately represented their views. I’m 100% Democrat. At the same time, I’m a Democrat for the First District. 

A “Democrat for the First District”? Are you saying that you’re a moderate Democrat? A conservative Democrat? 

I don’t want to use labels because they’re part of the problem with politics today. Labels stop discussion. Labels stop thought. Here’s the description that matters: I’m a son of Georgia. I’ve lived here most of my life. I’m not an AOC [Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez] Democrat. I’m not Nancy Pelosi Democrat. I’m a Democrat for my home district and for everyone in my district.

While we’re on the subject of labels, in the last election we heard Republicans up and down the ticket, from Donald Trump to Buddy Carter, repeatedly use the phrase “liberal socialist” and “radical liberal” to describe their Democratic opponents. Are you a “liberal socialist” or a “radical liberal”? 

I don’t know what “liberal socialist” or “radical liberal” mean. When Mr. Carter slings around the term to sow fear and smear Democrats, I don’t think he knows what it means, either. 

I’m an American. I believe in the American system. I’m an advocate for the families and people of this district. I believe government is, “We the people . . .” I believe there’s a role for it in our lives. I believe that when the private enterprise system will not or cannot adequately look after and protect the public, it’s the job of government, as our Constitution says, to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of our nation.”

Republicans argue that even if some Democrats aren’t dangerous radicals, they would, if elected to the House of Representatives, become prisoners of the party’s left wing. If elected, does that concern you? 

I absolutely will not be anybody’s political tool. Anybody who has ever worked with me knows that I’m an independent thinker and that I have a backbone. I don’t shy from speaking truth to power. 

As for political captives, if anyone fits that description, it’s Mr. Carter, who has been captured by the far-right of his party. He follows their playbook. He uses labels like “liberal socialist” because they told him to.

You’ve said that you’ll campaign alongside Stacey Abrams and Rafael Warnock in Coastal Georgia this fall if you win the Democratic primary in May. Republicans are already portraying the prospect of Abrams as Georgia’s next governor as a calamity. Are you concerned that you could be tied too closely to Abrams and Sen. Rafael Warnock? 

No, I’m not worried about that. I’m a Democrat and will proudly be on the ballot with Abrams and Warnock. Their victories will be a victory for the people of Georgia. If there’s any calamity on the horizon, it’s what their victories will cause the far-right of the Republican Party.

In the Democratic primary contest in 2020, Lisa Ring won the first round but didn’t receive the required 50% of the vote plus one and lost in the runoff to Joyce Griggs. Do you anticipate a runoff? If there is a runoff, are you concerned that it will be racially divisive?

My goal is to win the primary outright, and I think I can do that. If a runoff happens, it would be my hope that it wouldn’t be divisive, racially or in any other way. It won’t be that way from my side of the race. 

I’ve worked really hard to get the support of the African American community. I think that I’ve been successful. Like every voter I’m meeting and talking with in the First District, those in the African American community realize we need a change in Washington. They think I’m the candidate who has the best chance to make that change happen. They know what I’ve done in this community in the past 36 years. They know how hard I’ve worked since announcing my candidacy.

The videotaped murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three white men rocked not only Brunswick and Glynn County but the rest of the nation and, together with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it rippled around the world. Their deaths, and those of other Black men and women, have led to a lot of soul-searching and reassessments about where we stand as a nation and a community with regard to issues of race. How has your thinking about race evolved over the years?

I grew up in the South. Dad was in the Army and was stationed at Fort Benning. When he got out of the Army, we moved to Macon, in 1963 or 1964. At that time, when you went to a downtown department store, you could still find stores with two water fountains and stores with three bathrooms—”Male,” “Female,” “Colored.” 

My parents, from the beginning, taught me about respecting everyone. I can remember when Lyndon Johnson was running for president in 1964. That year, he had signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Our household was going to vote for him. On the school bus, though, there were these anti-LBJ chants: “Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird, Lady Bird Fly away/And when you do take LBJ.” I went home and asked my parents about this. I’m a young child, maybe first or second grade. They said, “Not everybody sees the world the way we do.”

My third-grade teacher kept a portrait of Robert E Lee in our classroom and taught us about the “lost cause.” I remember centennial commemorations of the Civil War, which was definitely depicted in a certain light in the state of Georgia. Despite that portrayal, I came to understand that the Civil War was an armed insurrection against the United States of America, and it was over slavery.

The year 1968, when I was in fourth grade, was turbulent. You’ve got Vietnam. In the spring, Martin Luther King is assassinated. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. Later that year, the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The country looked like it was ripping apart. My fourth-grade teacher, Becky Freeman, urged us to watch the news, not to avoid it.

Public schools were, certainly, a front line in the struggle over civil rights. Court-ordered integration of public schools in Bibb County, where Macon is located, started off piecemeal. Finally, in 1970, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, a federal judge for the Middle District of Georgia said, essentially, do it now. Some parents pulled their children from schools. Mine didn’t. For them, it wasn’t just an economic decision. To stay in public school, they believed, was the right thing to do. 

Since then, we’ve made progress on issues of race and racism. Still, even though I’ve never believed that we live in a post-racist society, I couldn’t help but be horrified watching that cop lean on George Floyd’s neck and that video of Mr. Arbery being chased down in the neighborhood in Brunswick.

Their deaths again brought home in a tragically real way that our system doesn’t work the same for everybody. Their deaths helped me understand that we have not come as far as I’d hoped— the public saw the video of Mr. Arbery’s killing because the man who made and leaked it actually thought it would help him and his friends. They helped me understand in a more real way, the deep anger and disappointment of Black people in our country. 

But in wrestling with what’s happened, I turn to the history of the civil rights movement and how it showed, among other things, a deep faith that our country can be better. We didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to fix it overnight. It certainly won’t do any good to ignore or deny the issues that the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others pose. We’ve got to acknowledge that reality so we can do something about it. 

I believe in the promise of America, but if you don’t understand our history, if you try to hide it away, or create a false narrative, then you don’t understand where we are, and you won’t understand the work that needs to be done. Which is one reason why I oppose efforts by the Georgia General Assembly or U.S. Congress to dictate what’s taught in schools. Parents absolutely have a say-so in what schools teach. They should work with teachers and be their partners. But it isn’t the role of these legislatures to prescribe what’s taught in the classroom. Let’s leave that to educators and parents. 

The Current has asked the primary candidates about their biggest inspirations. Who — or what — are yours?

My parents were inspirations. Both of them were frontline public servants. My Dad worked with vocational rehabilitation, helping disabled people get training and jobs. He started and ran the first halfway house in the state of Georgia to help people transition out of long-term institutionalization in places like Milledgeville or Thomasville.

My mother, who is still alive, taught English in high school and raised three kids. She’s the one who made the family work. Dad wanted me to be in the Boy Scouts, but it was my Mom who took me to the Scout meeting and sewed on the merit badges.

The former mayor of Savannah, Malcolm Maclean, remains a great inspiration for me. I had the privilege of working side-by-side with him for 15 years. He was incredibly bright and hard-working, a man of enormous integrity. As mayor, he worked with Civil Rights leaders to peacefully desegregate Savannah before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He paid the ultimate political price for that stance in 1966, when Savannah voters turned down his bid for reelection.

I’m a man of faith, and my faith is an inspiration to me. I admire Dr. Frederick Wilson, who served as president of Wesleyan College in Macon after leaving the ministry. He as a very kind man and a very bright man, as well as being a great communicator.

I’m an amateur historian. I was a history major in college. People talk about the challenges facing our country now, and I think about men and women at Valley Forge. I think about those men on Omaha Beach and climbing those cliffs under fire. I think about all of the brave people of the civil rights movement. I think about John Lewis and the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They knew what was coming and forged ahead anyway. I think about Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, those three brave young Civil Rights workers who were seized by the Klan, shot to death and buried in an earthen dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. I think about them.

For me, the lesson of American history is that America is a place of continued promise and hope. Our promises have not always been kept. But that doesn’t mean we give up on the hard work necessary to keep those promises. 

I’m dismayed at the negative view of America that Republicans paint. Donald Trump’s inaugural address five years ago was a dark, bleak, hopeless vision of America. That isn’t the America I envision. My America is a nation of hope and promise. I want to work on that hope. I want to work to keep those promises. 

Craig Nelson

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...