The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of The Georgia Virtue.
Over the weekend, a gut wrenching 11Alive story broke detailing a September 2019 evening when Georgia House of Representatives Majority Whip Trey Kelley and his friend supposedly tried to figure out how to handle a single-vehicle accident. The ‘facts’ are muddy and supposedly open to interpretation, but the short of it is that Kelly -who doubles a lawyer of sorts- responded to the scene, noticed a bike at some point during his own investigation, contacted the off-duty police chief at home, and took a few other irrelevant steps while a man who had been riding a bicycle lay dying in the ditch for more than hour. You can read the extensive expose that wouldn’t have come to light had it not been for an ethically apt and quite vocal coroner in this link, but worth noting is that there are now claims that Kelley’s friend and the driver of the vehicle was not mentally competent enough to call 911 after the accident, only competent enough to call a lawyer. Also, to date, no charges have been filed.
For most reasonable people, the story makes you want to vomit, cry, and punch someone in the face. For most of his colleagues, the story is one you hope you don’t get asked about because nothing you say will be the right answer for the public. And then there are the trusty constituents. We will get to them in a moment.
The story ran on Sunday and at the time, Kelley said he couldn’t comment because the investigation was ongoing. Tuesday rolls around and suddenly Kelley doesn’t just make a statement, but he publishes it on his Facebook page, detailing how he put his boots on and fired up a truck (like some low budget Brian Kemp tv commercial replica) to head on over to the scene of what everyone but Trey Kelley, his friend, and their close confidants deem ‘the crime.’ He downplays his friendship with the driver, mentions he is well-liked, and hypes up the specifics to distract from the fact that he’s not saying anything other than very minute details about what an effort it was for him to get to the scene that night.
The Facebook comments from his fellow Polk countians and a few meddlesome state reps are full of words of encouragement – telling him to keep his chin up, reminding him that “he’ll get through this,” and offering prayers of comfort.
I’ll be blunt: I haven’t got the stomach for it and it makes me sick, mostly because aside from the spotlight on his true colors, the entire incident has cost Trey Kelley nothing. He is not the victim here, not from any angle…not under any light.
I admit, my time in the political world has made me quite the cynic, but I came by that cynicism honestly. I have watched time and time again as elected officials make dangerous, reckless, and downright shameful decisions only for them to carry on with little to no consequences because the public dang near demands that it go that way.
I also know how easily elected officials can become victims. A few years ago, a county commissioner was driving his own vehicle to a campaign event for higher office when he hit and killed a man on a bicycle. It was absolutely terrible and I felt bad for everyone involved — until the elected official driving the car was seen back on the campaign trail just three days later and began using the accident as a campaign angle. I wrote an opinion piece about it in the midst of it because I was absolutely mortified that the biker had not even had a funeral yet – because his family couldn’t afford one – yet an elected official could carry on with his life in the public eye. I questioned how much political office is worth to people who can operate like that and you would have thought I suggested burning puppies in front of Pre-K classes in the town square. Accident or not, the man who hit the biker became the victim and people just couldn’t believe something like this had to happen to him. A few tear jerker Facebook posts about how hard the whole ordeal was on the driver (biker’s family be damned!) and a $150,000 in campaign expenditures later, the man is now a state senator.
What do these two stories have in common? A lot, actually – but for the purposes of this column, they share the timeline of an unwavering public defense. People who are willing to defend the character and faith of a person when all of the facts are still to be determined without regard for the fact that someone is dead. And both include a faction of the population who don’t care what the facts are, they simply can’t believe that anyone would speak ill of an elected official without regard for the fact that someone is dead.
The same thing happened when the late Judge Ben Brinson of Evans County was arrested for DUI in Statesboro. Or when State Representative Tom Taylor was arrested for DUI in the middle of the day with a car full of kids. Or the time State Representative Erica Thomas lied about being in fear for her life. Or the ethical missteps of Speaker David Ralston and his abuse of the ‘well, it’s allowed’ legislative leave provisions. Or when the Bulloch County Commissioner wasn’t honest about a hit & run accident in a parking lot. Or when people defended the judge who was offered a plea deal for his criminal acts because he’d “been through enough public humiliation” and he learned a lesson.
And each time – people were just devastated to hear that these elected officials were dealing with such hardships and, by golly, shame on the media for reporting it. Shame on the media for putting the facts out there. Shame on the other players involved for putting these leaders in these positions.How dare those men ride bikes and share the road with drivers.
“Thoughts and prayers during this hard time”
“You’re a good elected official and I know you’ll get through this.”
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
Yet, when regular Joe or suburban Sandra’s involved in a scandal or commits a crime, the court of public opinion can try the case in a matter of minutes as the onlookers foam at the mouth at the chance to burn them at the stake.
Feeling sorry that they’re being humiliated in the public eye, making them the victim, and forgetting the real facts of the case foster the environment for them to abuse their power and position. They have no reason to be honest and accountable because it’s easier for you to feel sorry for them.
The reality is this: Sometimes life happens. Sometimes people who are otherwise good humans in their personal lives do terrible things or they fail to act when it’s time to do the morally sound thing. Other times, they’re just the victims of the circumstances and they don’t respond in a way that makes the rest of us proud to know they are making decisions on behalf of thousands of other citizens.
It doesn’t mean we should condemn them to hell, nor does it mean we will shun them forever. It just means they demonstrated poor judgment and that if they aren’t willing to step away from political office to recalibrate their moral compass, the voters need to throw their weight around and do it for them.
More importantly, people need to bring elected officials down from the pedestals. They each put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. They are not special. They are not immune from poor decision-making, bad acts, and downright lawlessness. They’re representatives of the people and the community and it’s imperative that they are treated as such because when they’re not, that’s a reflection on us.