Ex Columbus High School coach running for Congress

Russell “Rusty” Oliver
Russell “Rusty” Oliver

Former Columbus High School girls soccer and cross country coach and science teacher Rusty Oliver is running for Congress.

Oliver, now a science teacher at Harris County High School, told the Ledger-Enquirer on Wednesday that he is running for the 2018 Democratic nomination to unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, who is in his first term representing Georgia’s 3rd Congressional District.

The district includes the northern part of Muscogee County, all of Carroll, Coweta, Harris, Heard, Lamar, Meriwether, Pike, Spalding, Troup and Upson counties and part of Fayette and Henry counties.

Candidates must qualify for the May 22 primary and nonpartisan elections between 9 a.m. March 5 and noon March 9. The general election is Nov. 6.

According to Ballotpedia, Oliver’s only opponent so far for the Democratic nomination is Chuck Enderlin, a Delta Air Lines pilot and Marine veteran. Ferguson, a dentist and former mayor of West Point, also has only one opponent so far for the Republican nomination, Philip Singleton, an Army veteran. The Federal Election Commission, however, lists Singleton as an independent.

Oliver, 46, taught for 20 years at Columbus High and coached girls soccer for 18 years there, as well as boys and girls cross country. He collected multiple region championships in both sports and three state championship game berths in soccer.

The Ledger-Enquirer reported in June 2016 that he no longer was coaching at Columbus High, three months after notching his 250th soccer victory. He declined comment then, and school officials weren’t reached for an explanation.

Asked now why he departed, Oliver told the Ledger-Enquirer in an emailed interview, “Health issues at the time prevented me from doing what needed to be done there at the time until I was able to recover. I was able to step aside and let others do the jobs that I did with success for two decades. I wanted to explore other opportunities and have been afforded a welcome hand wherever I look.”

Those health issues came from a herniated disc in his spine, diagnosed in March 2016, Oliver said.

“I postponed surgery for months until after the GHSA State Soccer Championship game because I did not want to take time away from the team,” he said. “I had surgery in May 2016. Due to complications, I ended up having two additional, emergency surgeries during June of 2016. I spent nine nights in the hospital, including three in the emergency room. Ultimately, I had to have my spine fused, and it took me over a year to recover.”

He taught last year at LaGrange High School but now is at Harris County because, he said, “I had to limit my driving in order for my back to heal.” And he isn’t coaching now, he said, because “I could not commit the time required to coach at the level that I am used to and campaign simultaneously.”

Oliver’s health struggles are part of his motivation to run for Congress, he said. They made him “aware of the impact of the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act without any offer of replacement to me and the other people in our district.”

He also has been “appalled” by President Donald Trump’s “executive decisions to strike at environmental protections for no justifiable reason. I want to work to bridge the polarity that has engulfed our culture and know that I can listen to others that have a different opinion than my own.”

Asked which issues would be his priorities if he were elected and how he would address them, Oliver listed the following:

▪ Healthcare for all. He would “work across the aisle. This has to be a nonpartisan issue. Talk with healthcare professionals, people for whom the current system does and does not work, and use the Medicare model that is popular with 90 percent of its recipients.”

▪ National defense. “Take care of our active duty military, veterans and veterans' families,” Oliver said. “Demand oversight on defense spending that takes income, pensions and protections away from the personnel and is wasted on companies and CEOs that exploit their service.”

▪ Environment. “As a veteran classroom teacher, I am the most knowledgeable candidate concerning federal legislation and the day-to-day operations of a classroom and school,” Oliver said. “I will ensure that policy that comes from Washington is practical, cost effective and does not restrict the equality of education for any single student. I am concerned about the privatization of all public schools and the push to move federal monies like Title I away from those it is intended to benefit.”

▪ Economy. “We can stimulate the economy in West Georgia by investing in infrastructure between hubs in the 3rd District and larger cities in the Southeast,” Oliver said. “High speed rail lines will create tens of thousands of jobs and put millions of dollars into the area. We must also ensure that any changes in the tax structure benefits the majority of people, not those earning the top 1 percent. Trickle-down economics failed in the 1980s and will not work today. Investing in renewable energy will bring jobs and investment as well as protecting our environment.”

▪ Voting. “A citizen's right to vote must be protected,” Oliver said. “We must all work to restore confidence in democracy, the idea that every vote counts, ending gerrymandering, and the return to paper ballots, which are cheaper and more reliable than voting computers. I also believe that Voting Day should be celebrated as a national holiday in addition to giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate.”

Oliver and his wife, Jennifer, have two sons, Tucker, 20, and William, 16. His community involvement includes being a member of St. Luke United Methodist Church, Indivisible Columbus (an organization promoting progressive values), Ducks Unlimited and the Sierra Club. He also is a volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service.

He expects to need “at least $250,000” in fundraising to have a successful election. His “interim” campaign managers are Melissa Blanchard and Kim Watson Moulder; his campaign treasurer is Vic Cameron.

“Despite the differences people have had with me over working and living here for 24 years, people who know me know that I will go to bat for everyone,” Oliver said. “I have never run for office, but I have been a state employee for 22 years, promoting science education and the equality of all, and my platform benefits the majority of people in the 3rd District. I have been through the hardest years of my life and come through these times with a renewed sense of responsibility, energy and desire to be a true representative to the people of the 3rd District.”