Floyd Hudgins was the kind of politician who seemed to be either ahead of his time or running behind.
Depending on what he did last, the longtime state senator in the press would be described either as Columbus’ savior or an “embarrassment” to the city.
A self-made man who grew up dirt-poor and fought hard and long to gain and hold public office, Hudgins was colorful and crusty, plain-spoken and combative.
He died Tuesday at age 80. His funeral will be 1 p.m. Saturday at Cusseta United Methodist Church, 824 Broad St., Cusseta, Ga. The family will receive friends 5-7 p.m. Friday at Columbus’ McMullen Funeral Home, 3874 Gentian Boulevard.
Born in 1930 in Etowah County, Ala., Hudgins was the son of a steelworker and labor organizer who hosted secret union meetings in his company-owned house. The parents separated when the father became an abusive drunk, and the boy and his pregnant mother moved to a mountain shack with only a foot trail leading to it.
They made a living as best they could — sometimes cutting wood for sale, the 12-year-old Floyd on one end of a crosscut saw and his pregnant mother on the other.
At age 15, he ran away from home when his father’s abuse continued as his parents reconciled.
He wound up a crane-operator’s helper in Anniston, and moved around for a while working construction until July 1949, when he landed in Cusseta, working with a company building barracks at Fort Benning. He became a heavy equipment operator.
He got his high school equivalency diploma in 1967, took correspondence courses, served in the Georgia National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves, and worked in real estate and insurance. He married his first wife in 1950, and they had five children.
As a write-in candidate, he won a one-year term on the Cusseta Council in 1958. He ran for Cusseta mayor three times and lost. Then he ran for the state senate and won, but lost the seat in reapportionment.
In 1964, he won a special election to the state house, and was re-elected in 1965. That seat was eliminated in reapportionment.
In 1965, he moved his family to Columbus’ Oakland Park neighborhood. In 1968, he defeated an incumbent state senator, and in the next 20 years became a powerful figure in state and regional politics.
Some of the measures Hudgins pushed would seem like givens today. Back when the Muscogee County school board was appointed by a grand jury, Hudgins said it should be elected, to make it more accountable and representative. He supported developing Providence Canyon as a tourist attraction. He backed getting I-185 finished to connect Columbus to I-85, and thought a high-speed rail line to Atlanta should follow.
He co-authored legislation reducing possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana to a misdemeanor offense. He pushed for a statewide juvenile justice system that would be more professional and consistent. He backed legislation strengthening reporting requirements in instances of abuse or neglect of the disabled.
When reports surfaced that workers were having sex with patients in mental hospitals and juveniles in detention, Hudgins authored a bill to make having sex with a person in custody a crime, regardless of age or consent. He pushed for a study committee – 20 years before the issue became a crisis – to look at how metropolitan areas were diverting water from the Chattahoochee River.
When an Atlanta Republican tried to pass a resolution requiring that patients in mental hospitals be sterilized, Hudgins got it tabled. When he found out patients on leave were smuggling booze to alcoholics in a veterans hospital in Milledgeville, he raised hell.
“They get seven bucks for a half-pint,” he said in May 1975. “This just defeats the purpose of rehabilitation. We get reports that some of these patients get pretty tight.”
His admirers said children always were among Hudgins’ top priorities. As assistant manager of a Boys’ Club baseball team, he would pick up kids down in Chattahoochee County and drive them to Columbus so they could play ball.
In 1987, to call attention to the issue of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, he gave each member of the Georgia Senate a box of condoms.
His mouth and money tended to get him in trouble.
In 1983, he made national news when reports revealed he’d been involved with Billy Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s brother, in trying to do business with some Libyans who reportedly paid Billy Carter $220,000.
“I’m just a hard-working, poor boy,” Hudgins told reporters. “I took a chance. If Billy hadn’t gone and shot his mouth off, everything would have been fine.” He added that he would have punched out the president’s brother “if that was the thing to do.”
In 1985, he got a permit to reopen a derelict landfill off South Lumpkin Road, alienating constituents in the area. His plan never went through.
In 1986, on the Senate floor, he joked about a bill imposing stricter penalties on boating while intoxicated: What about people who drink and float by their docks? “Would we be subject to arrest for floating under the influence?” he asked.
He got in a feud with Zell Miller in 1979, calling the then-lieutenant governor “gutless,” and prompting Miller to tell him to stay out of the lieutenant governor’s office. Yet in 1988, Miller endorsed Hudgins’ bid for re-election.
That same year, Hudgins spearheaded legislation to let Columbus Council pass a one year, 1 percent sales tax to cover a budget shortfall. City leaders were so pleased that then-Councilor Bobby Peters kept a promise to kiss Hudgins on Broadway in broad daylight.
In that year's Democratic Primary, Gary Parker soundly defeated Hudgins, and ended his Senate career.
One year later, news reports revealed Hudgins was being paid $35,000 a year for a state job with no supervision. “I don’t need no boss. I’m not a field hand,” Hudgins said then.
His political career wasn’t over. In 1997, he was elected to the Cusseta Council. In 2000, he won election to the Chattahoochee County Commission and served as chairman.
Three years later, one of Hudgins’ last big visionary ideas came to fruition as the residents of Cusseta and Chattahoochee County voted to consolidate the city and county governments, an effort for which Hudgins had campaigned for two years.
As a state senator, he’d had a hand in Columbus and Muscogee County consolidating in 1971. “I’m glad to say in my 73 years, I’ve been instrumental in the first consolidated government and the fourth consolidated government in Georgia,” he said.