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Sunday Interview with John Pezold: 'I was kind of born without a self-preservation instinct'

By Chuck Williams

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

John Pezold on Partisan Politics and Limited Government

State Rep. John Pezold, 36-year old Republican from Fortson, comments on partisan politics and limited government
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State Rep. John Pezold, 36-year old Republican from Fortson, comments on partisan politics and limited government

John Pezold doesn't dodge questions.

He is a 36-year-old politician who doesn't sound much like a politician.

He has followed his highly successful father, Jack Pezold, into the McDonald's franchise business.

Recently, Pezold sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk politics, business and family.

Here are excerpts of that interview:

What is your role with Pezold Management, your father's company? Any title there?

No, nobody really has a title.

Except your dad.

Well, yeah. Big Man.

You've been in Georgia General Assembly for how many years now?

This will be my fourth year, coming up.

What made you run for political office?

My dad has always been really good at asking questions to get beyond what meets the eye, so I got some of that honesty. I began to question things that went on in our government, mostly regarding transparency and how, for the most part, people either are ignorant of what goes on under the Gold Dome -- whether it's because they choose to be or whether it's because it's not covered -- but for the most part, people want to pay attention to federal politics. In the echo chamber, with Fox News on one side and MSNBC on the other side.

So the state government's overlooked?

Yeah, it's totally overlooked. Look, sexy sells and demagogue issues sell. That's why you've got people like Sean Hannity just talking and talking and talking because it gets people riled up and it gets them to tune in.

You're a Republican, right?

I am. Dyed in the wool.

Traditional Republican?

Well, what do you define as traditional? I believe in limited government.

Fiscal conservative.

Absolutely.

You had worked for a congressman before, right?

Yes, I worked for Mack Collins in 2002.

You get to Atlanta three years ago, what did you discover about state government that you didn't know before you got there?

There's so much that happens behind the scenes that people don't know about. Heck, I've been there, you know -- I started three years ago -- and there's so much that even I don't see.

Something appears and happens, right?

Nothing just appears and happens -- it all happens for a reason -- but a lot of times it just appears and happens simply because a lot of people just aren't paying attention.

You're not aiming for governor or anything like that?

I would rather pass a kidney stone every day for the rest of my life, and I've passed a kidney stone before.

As you are in this process, what's the part you enjoy the most about it?

The part I enjoy most: there's some really great people and I've really enjoyed the relationships that I've built, but to get a chance to do things a little bit differently. I post all my votes online and I keep a running database on my website. If you want to look at Senate Bill 24 from 2013 session, it's on my website. I'll tell you not only how I voted, but why I voted that way. On there you can cross-check, you can click the link to the official bill on the website. To my knowledge, until I was a freshman that had never been done in Columbus or in the General Assembly.

I want for people to say, "Hey, where are you on this vote? -- and don't just give me campaign talking points." Unfortunately, a lot of people have an attention span of 140 characters. I want to reach out to the people who have a greater attention span than that. A lot of time, people assume that nobody's paying attention to this stuff. You know what? Maybe they're not, but I want to do my part to pull the covers back and say, "This is exactly what we're doing, this is how I feel, this is why I'm doing it."

Interesting. Talk more about it.

It's very liberating. I mean, I don't worry about that stuff.

You don't sound like a typical politician.

Thank you? I was kind of born without a self-preservation instinct. If it means going home -- by definition, if I'm not good enough for this district -- by definition, somebody else is, right?

Is there enough transparency in state government?

Well, there's certainly some measures that are on the table that could change some things. I'll give you an example. You know what a conference committee report is? It's when the House and the Senate can't agree, so three representatives go into a darkened room, hash it out, and out comes this bill. The problem is, every other committee meeting is video conferences -- you can get a video archive of every transportation hearing, every insurance committee hearing. It doesn't work that way for conference committee hearings. On top of that, when a conference committee report comes out, we have one hour to look at that bill before it can be voted on. One hour and sometimes these things are hundreds of pages long. Guess what? That's a perfect opportunity to sneak in crap that doesn't belong.

I'll give you a perfect example. Just before 11 p.m. on Day 40, this past session, they snuck in a multi-million dollar tax break for Mercedes-Benz. Now, it didn't say "Mercedes-Benz" -- it said, "Automobile manufacturer with their world-wide headquarters in Georgia." Now, that only means one manufacturer. Kia may have a plant here but their headquarters is in Seoul. Because we have to adjourn at midnight, they trot it up there, introduce the bill: "Nothing to see here, it's just a tax clean-up bill and ..."

When did you realize you had voted on that?

Oh, I knew it beforehand. I read about it in the AJC before we saw the conference committee report. As soon as we get the report, I run through it, find it and I start working the room, talking to everybody: "Hey, we've got to do something about this."

"Oh, it's the governor's bill, we can't do that."

As luck would have it, they started debate on the issue at around 11:50 -- did not allow any questions from the floor, did not allow any debate on the floor. The mindset was, "This bill does what we say it does, nothing to see here." There's a lot of people who -- let's face it -- they don't read the bills that they vote on.

It got through?

It got through with 93 or 94 votes. You need 91. Now, at first it didn't have the votes, but the machines were left open for a little bit and votes shot up magically. Isn't that something?

I'm going to take it a step further. Republicans have a bad reputation as being for big corporations. That Mercedes-Benz tax credit bill makes people's arguments that much stronger. I mean, really, are you for small business or are you for big business? In that case, we were absolutely bought and paid for by big business.

Interesting.

Hard to argue.

You can't argue.

Them's the facts.

Let's talk a little bit about your dad. Your dad is well known in this town. What's your dad like when you're dealing with him as a father to son?

I don't know how the typical father-son relationship is.

You and your dad are close, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

Do you have a lot of his qualities?

Yeah, I think so.

What?

I don't think either of us really concerns ourselves with what people think about us.

What's the most important thing he's taught you?

Be honest and be ethical and treat people decently. Behind the hard-nosed persona that people think he is -- and he is that sometimes -- he is, particularly when it comes to kids, that's the ultimate soft spot for him, is helping kids.

I've heard people say you're more like your mama than your daddy.

I'd like to tell myself that I have everybody's best qualities. Some people may, respectfully, disagree with that. Mom is more gregarious, which I certainly am. I think that I get that from her and from her dad, as well.

Talk a little bit about what you do. You've got two McDonald's restaurants that you own and manage. Talk to me a little bit about them -- where they are and what you're doing with them.

We've got the Macon Road McDonald's here and the Commerce Avenue store up in LaGrange. I'm not tied down to those two. We've still got an amazing infrastructure in place -- really, really, amazingly talented people. This afternoon I was at a different store up in LaGrange.

Do you work in the restaurant? I mean, do you go in and work and will you go in?

Well, yeah. Nowadays, I tend to slow people down. I'm a pretty good cheerleader.

Hire good managers, right?

Absolutely. I tell people, "If I'm the fastest person on your table making sandwiches, you're in big trouble." I'm the worst order taker, which is the way it should be because, you know, you don't want me there.

Did you always say, "OK, I'm going to be owning and managing McDonald's," or did you think about doing something else and going in another direction?

Yeah, like any kid, you always think about doing something else. He started me working at Stadium Drive over in Phenix City when I was 8 years old. I was just a little bitty thing, so I was making drinks in the drive-thru my first summer -- certainly cleaned some bathrooms and worked out in the lobby. The second year, I got a little bit taller, so they put a booster seat up in front of the drive-thru window and let me hand bags out of the window. Of course, nowadays the menu is way, way more complicated. That's a totally different conversation.

What's your favorite thing on the menu?

Oh, gosh. You know it all depends when you ask me that. I tell you what, nothing beats a Filet-O-Fish -- a double Filet if I'm feeling frisky, with extra tartar sauce. I'm a big McRib fan, so every time that comes back, I'm all over it.

How have you seen Columbus change over the years that you've been here?

Well, I mean, start with downtown. When I was growing up people really wouldn't think of coming downtown, but now ... the arts community has just blossomed down here and ... so proud of it, with the college and with the RiverCenter and with the Springer -- all those folks are doing just fantastic work. This is a draw now. People are making downtown Columbus a destination. Throw in whitewater, which I'll tell you right now, I was a naysayer on the whitewater.

Why?

Because I thought, "Who in the world is going to come to Columbus, Georgia, to raft down the Chattahoochee River?" Then I took a Chamber of Commerce intercity trip to Charlotte, saw what they had there, and I got it. I'm sure most people would say, "Yeah, I was 100 percent on board from the get-go." No, they made a believer out of me and it's

What do you think of it now?

Oh, man. It is a jewel, and I'm so proud to talk to people I know around the state and say, "Man, you've got to come to Columbus."

"Where's Columbus?" These are people that lived in Georgia most of their lives, and I get them here and they're like, "Oh my gosh, where has this place been hiding all my life?" It's such a great place.

If you look at some of the things that as a legislator you actually do have some say in, you have say in Columbus State University -- certainly in some of the funding of it, some of the things that happen, I know -- how important is Columbus State to this city?

Huge economic driver, teaching people. I mean, I'm more proud of my Columbus State degree than I am any of my other degrees. No comparison.

Talk about our local delegation. Even though Republicans are in the majority in both the House and the Senate and every key position in the state, Columbus is still (Democrat) -- of its seven person delegation is four Democrats, three Republicans.

Correct.

Is that a disadvantage for Columbus?

I don't think so. Calvin (Smyre), obviously, has been around the block. He does a really good job as the chairman of the delegation because I'm still a puppy. I'm the junior member of the delegation and I really lean on the other delegation members to point me in the right direction and explain all the ins and outs to me.

So, you will talk to Calvin, to the Democrats in the delegation about issues that impact Columbus.

Yeah. Yes. Every day.

Do you see that in other cities where there's a split?

I can't comment on other cities. Everybody thinks that the partisanship that exists at the federal level by definition must exist in Atlanta. It's just not the case. Part of that is geography. If you're a Republican from Coweta County, it's easy to demagogue a colleague who lives in Seattle, Wash., because that person is thousands of miles away. On top of that, in Congress, the Republicans sit on one side and the Democrats sit on the other side.

Y'all are dispersed, right?

We are dispersed and Demetrius Douglas sits right next to me on my left. Demetrius used to play linebacker for the Georgia Bulldogs and the New York Jets. Do you think that I'm going to stand up and disparage my brother from another mother, Demetrius, about politics? He could literally tear me in half if he wanted to. It's not just about the person that sits next to me -- one of the people that I respect more than anybody is a lady by the name of Karla Drenner.

Karla who?

Karla Drenner. She's from DeKalb County and she is probably the most liberal member of the house. She is one of the -- if not the first -- openly gay people to serve in the General Assembly, and I love that woman. She's principled and she'll fight for what she believes in, no matter what the cost. That's really the best you can ask for, right?

Even though you may disagree with her on some issues, you respect the way she does it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Every morning when I walk in to that floor, she's one of the very first people I give a hug and give her a kiss.

As a Republican, do you struggle sometimes with the social stand your party takes on issues?

I understand when people have a set of beliefs, and we should certainly respect that, but to me, being a conservative is being for limited government, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

Many of those social issues make Republicans uncomfortable?

Yeah. Yeah. One of the first questions in my mind when I read a piece of legislation is, is this the proper role of government? Do we really need to use the police power of government to do X, Y or Z? That is at my core every time I read a piece of legislation -- and that's every piece of legislation. Is it the proper role of government?

You almost sound like a Libertarian.

I think I sound like a conservative. Conservative means limited government. We can't pick and choose what parts of government we want limited, not if we're being intellectually honest.

That's a hard sell in a legislative body, though, is it not?

You know, I'm accountable to my own constituents and everybody else is accountable to their own constituents, so everything's a hard sell in a legislative body. With 180 plus 56 in the senate, everything's a hard sell.

How much longer do you see yourself doing this?

What day is it today? (Laughter.) When I ran, I pledged to term-limit myself to four two-year terms.

You won election, you've won re-elections without opposition?

Yes.

Will you be running this year?

Yes, I anticipate that I will.

Why did you term-limit yourself when you got elected? Georgia has no term limits.

No, they don't. I believe it's the right thing. Who wants to be characterized as a career politician? Ugh. Plus, who would want to do this for ever and ever? That's a rhetorical question.

Representative Westmoreland has just announced that he's not going to be seeking re election.

I read that.

You're in his district. You're not a threat to run for Congress, right?

I typically do not deal in absolutes, but I'm 36 years old, I've got a 9-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old -- and I am happily married and I intend to stay that way.

BIO

Name: John Pezold

Age: 36

Job: Owner/operator of McDonald’s franchises on Macon Road in Columbus and one in LaGrange, Ga.; state representative, Georgia General Assembly

Education: Hardaway High School, 1997; Auburn University, B.A., business finance, 2001; Columbus State University, MBA, 2005

Family: Ashley, wife of 11 years; children Eleanor, 9; Jack, 6; and Hamilton, 2

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