Charlie Harper: My Friend Vs My Hero
Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
I was walking across the hallways of Georgia’s Capitol in early March when I ran into an old friend. I hadn’t seen Dr. Karen Mathiak in a while, but like many of my friends from political circles I keep up with her on social media.
Dr. Mathiak is a Spalding County Republican and community activist. I originally met her during my final years living in neighboring Fayette County. She was active in local GOP circles as well as many civic and community causes in the Griffin area.
Long after I moved, she was one that I could talk to if I needed to understand the local view from the southern exurbs. She has a reputation of being both a “good team player” and yet possesses a bit of an independent streak. More importantly, she has a bit of wisdom that seems to guide her as to when to employ each of those skills.
We greeted each other as old friends – big smiles and a hug. It changed a bit when I asked her what brought her to the Capitol. It was qualifying week, and she was there to put her name on the ballot. I could see her reaction to the change in my facial expression clearly – and it was one that I’m guessing she was used to seeing as she told people of her decision.
Dr. Mathiak was there to qualify against Representative John Yates. Dr. Mathiak is a friend of mine. Representative Yates is a hero of mine.
Representative Yates was one of the first people I met when I did some campaigning myself in Spalding County back in 2000. He was always kind and helpful, and answered any questions I had quite directly. He reveled in his ability to be a bit of a thorn in the then Democratic majority’s side – but respectfully so.
Representative Yates is a consummate gentleman. At the age of 94, he’s also the oldest serving state legislator in the country. He’s the last WWII veteran serving in the Georgia legislature, and according to Townhall.com, the last serving WWII vet in a state legislature in the entire country.
Representative Yates is walking, talking history. Given the opportunity, he is usually quite willing and able to talk about it. He has some awesome stories.
It’s become a bit of a tradition to spend an afternoon with him and resident interns du jour exposing millennials of today to what improvising battle tactics in the European Theater was like in 1944. A favorite story of his is when he was flying his Piper Cub over a line of German tanks that he was spotting for artillery strikes. Each line was too close to target by the other, so they were locked in position.
Representative Yates landed his plane, fashioned some improvised Molotov cocktails, and proceeded to begin dropping them on the Germans. While they did no damage to the tanks, it did apparently confuse the operators who believed they were under fire by the American tanks in front of them. They began to retreat, and as they backed into range, Yates called down the coordinates for a successful strike.
While he enjoys telling the stories as much as I do listening to them, he’s very matter of fact about them and his service. He’s a hero, but he doesn’t brag. He’s frankly more apt to give you a story about streamlining some of the cogs within the Ford Motor Company if you ask him about some of his successes.
Representative Yates is still beloved in Griffin – and rightfully so. As such, Dr. Mathiak’s campaign was not typical for today’s usual primary challenge. It was not a charge against an out of touch establishment, nor an attack on the character or service of the incumbent. It couldn’t be.
Instead, a political and community activist that has been asked for years to wait her turn decided it was time to offer herself to voters and let them decide who best would represent them in Atlanta for the next two years. While I can’t say I witnessed the day to day operations of either campaign, it appears great deference was given to Representative Yates for his service to the country and to Georgia. He has, after all, earned that.
But when the votes were counted in May, Dr. Mathiak had convinced enough voters it was time for a change that there was a runoff. She won the seat in the July runoffs a couple of weeks ago.
In an era of negative campaigning and character assassination, a campaign run on the notion of a much simpler question should be noted. Who is best to represent the people?
The voters decided to send my friend Dr. Mathiak to Atlanta to represent them, where I’ll get to see her on a more regular basis. My friend John Yates will remain my hero. And I’m overdue to call him to set a time for more stories.
Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.