It a busy Saturday at Bread & Butter Bakery, where an alarming slice of my disposable income comes to be disposed. Customers are nibbling on sandwiches and eyeing the dessert case, and nearby, Asian students from Oxford College are chattering over tea.
My coffee companion is Scott Jay, the recently elected chairman of the Newton County Republican Party. It goes without saying, Scott is a conservative. From the perspective of some of my liberal friends in the community, he’s more than a conservative; he’s just two shades shy of Stalin. But here’s the other thing. For this piece, I wasn’t looking to interview Scott, per se. I was simply looking for the Newton County person who is not only considered very conservative, but one who is not a knee-jerk reactionary; someone who thinks things through, whose ideas are shaped by reason, albeit on the conservative spectrum.
It was hardly a scientific poll. I asked one former Covington official (moderate Democrat); one current city official (conservative Republican), one longtime observer of the local political scene (liberal Democrat); and another current city official (moderate Republican…maybe). Without exception, they named Scott Jay. And it hurt two of them to say it.
Scott laughs at this. And then laughs again. “That’s rich.”
As it happens, as the head of the county GOP, his thoughts on all things conservative carry some weight.
His name carried extra meaning for me, personally, because it happens I am a customer of his at Pak and Ship, the storage, shipping, and truck rental facility on Highway 278. From my perspective, Scott was a small business owner, such as myself, though I knew he leaned right and he probably sensed I tilted left. But he is a genuinely likable guy—he’s self-effacing, laughs easily, and doesn’t speak in exclamation points, but in even, measured tones. I also know he is never far from a gun and when he requires a knife to open a package, he produces a blade that would be the envy of any Delta Force commando.
Thus, it was with some surprise that the first time I ever saw Scott outside of his store was at an opera recital. Surprise morphed into awe when I saw in the program that he and his wife, Leesha, had contributed $10,000 to the Covington arts. If you added up my contributions over the years to Democratic candidates, Greenpeace, the ACLU, gay support groups and my alma mater, not to mention my beloved online subscription to The New York Times, they would tally but a fraction of Scott’s show of commitment to the arts.
Raised in Newton County (the family gravesite dates to the 1700s), Scott’s grandfather was a butcher, his grandmother was the society writer for The Covington News, his father worked in plastics fabrication, and his mother worked for the old Southern Bell. Scott’s own interest in politics was virtually nonexistent until he tangled with the Georgia Department of Transportation over truck access to his business. And that led to his presence at meetings, which led to more meetings, and soon he was voicing his thoughts.
“When I stand up to speak at the county commissioner meetings, which is often, I do tend to express conservative views,” he says. “But I try to be informed. I pull out my phone and take some notes, and do some reading, but to tell you the truth, a lot of this stuff comes from my gut. And I’m also into details. I was in the printing business a long time, and you become greatly attuned to details. Maybe that carries over.”
While it’s probably best not to get him started on Hillary Clinton, it’s also difficult to pigeonhole him: he’s big into natural foods, and is entirely distrustful of Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. Genetically modified foods? Don’t get him started. And you would be in error to consider him blindly loyal to every GOP official to tool around the square. He is also no fan of House Speaker Paul Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Scott takes his empty coffee cup and places it in the middle of the table. “Here’s the center,” he says. And then he slides our respective cellphones to either side of the cup. “And here are the two parties. Sometimes we drift this way,” and he slides a phone to the left. “And sometimes we drift this way,” his other hand shifting my Samsung to the right. “But the decisions will get made in the center,” though one imagines he hopes with shades of red attached to it.
When Scott’s day is done, he often retreats into music, hence his support of the arts. “Why not help them out?” he says. “It adds value to the community.” He is a son of classic rock ’n’ roll (indeed, he’s sporting a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt), who plays keyboard, builds his own guitars and swells with joy at the memory of one of Leon Russell’s last concerts. But his other musical foot is in gospel, especially the harmonics of the Gaither Vocal Band. Either way, he says, “Music is a soulful thing. If it doesn’t give you goose bumps, then you’re not rich inside.”
He prepares to leave. “Some things are neither left nor right. They’re just the right thing to do,” he says. “I want my grandchildren to enjoy some of the things I grew up with. I’m in a position now where I can do some things to promote that. I don’t especially care if you like me or not, but I speak up.”
Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for The Atlanta Constitution.