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Meet Georgia’s delegation to the Republican National Convention

The conventions are coming

Starting in Iowa and New Hampshire, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has brought you every key moment in the 2016 presidential race. A team of AJC journalists will be at next month’s Republican and Democratic national conventions, continuing to provide that deep coverage.

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There’s a professional storyteller. A teenage activist trying to build a national profile. A former presidential candidate, a medical marijuana activist, one of the nation’s most prominent Republican attorneys, and a gaggle of ambitious politicians and rising GOP stars.

Georgia is sending 76 delegates to the Republican National Convention in two weeks in Cleveland, a cross section of the state GOP that includes some seasoned veterans who have worked for decades for the chance to head to the party’s quadrennial bash and others who, more or less, fell into the role.

The delegates will be a part of a four-day event to hash out the party’s platform, forge the rules for the next presidential race and help decide whether to anoint Donald Trump the party’s nominee — or side with the still-brewing, and still unlikely, attempt to derail his coronation.

Some already play central roles in the state party or national politics, while others are considered up-and-comers who will play prominent parts in the Georgia GOP in the years to come. And there are also novice activists who had hardly attended a party breakfast, let alone a Republican convention, before this presidential race.

The last Republican event Robert Booth, 59, graced before this election cycle was a county meeting about 20 years ago. But he was so incensed by illegal immigration, the threat of Islamic terrorism and the growing national debt that he ran for a delegate slot this year — and won.

“I have come to believe it is my turn to step up, stand up and speak up for what I believe is best, right and good for this country and to join with others who feel the same way or there may not be a United States of America for your family or mine,” he said.

Contrast that with Will Carter, an 18-year-old rising Mercer University freshman who hopes Cleveland is only his first highlight in a lifetime of Republican politics. He had to borrow $25 to attend his first district meeting because he didn’t know there would be an entrance fee, and now he’s one of the youngest of the thousands of delegates to the meeting.

“I’m excited. It still hasn’t hit me yet. It probably won’t hit me until I get on the plane and go to Cleveland. I’m still kind of awestruck that I won,” he said. “I’ll definitely be among the minority, being as young as I am, but the Republican Party needs to embrace younger people.”

Some big fish

Some Georgians expect to play a starring role at the meet. Randy Evans is a high-profile Republican attorney — Gov. Nathan Deal and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich are among his clients — and a prominent member of the committee that decides the convention’s procedural rules. In essence, Trump’s candidacy hinges on how Evans’ panel votes.

Other Trump allies in the Georgia contingent include Rayna Ellis, one of the billionaire’s top fundraisers, and Bruce LeVell, the Dunwoody jeweler who leads the National Diversity Coalition for Trump and serves as a national surrogate for the candidate.

It’s also a showcase for a gaggle of elected leaders and others who could contend for higher office, including Attorney General Sam Olens and state Sens. David Shafer and Michael Williams.

And then there are the former politicos who are eager to get a different view of the process.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr has attended many conventions as a guest, much like Deal and U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue will do this time. But Barr, the Libertarian Party’s 2008 nominee for president, is headed to Cleveland this time as a delegate. He’s gearing up for behind-the-scenes fights over the party’s policies and direction.

“I’m looking forward to getting involved with a lot of folks who care deeply about the country,” said Barr, who lost a bid to return to Congress in 2014. “They are there for the right reasons. And I really would like to have a hand in the future of the country for the next four years.”

Dale Jackson, another delegate, is planning his Cleveland trip with another mission in mind. He has a single-minded focus on persuading other delegates to embrace medical marijuana as part of the party’s official platform — no easy task among the conservatives who dominate the event.

“That’s my focus and my main objective in attending the national convention,” said Jackson, a west Georgia activist and father of an autistic son who relies on cannabis oil for treatment. “And I’m looking to do everything possible to make that happen.”

New stories to tell

Other partisans hope Georgia’s delegate slate sends a signal about inclusion. The group is overwhelmingly white, much like the Georgia GOP overall, though there are a handful of minorities and millennials who hope to bring new ideas to a party that’s long struggled with African-American and Hispanic voters.

Among them is Michael McNeely, who as vice chairman of the Georgia GOP is the highest-ranking African-American in the state party.

“We’re going to continue to grow our party and increase diversity,” said McNeely, a likely candidate for public office in the future. “And we’re going to go into the new year to continue that growth with all of our party members once we’ve taken back the White House.”

As a 28-year-old woman, Jade Morey is another story the party hopes to highlight. A Houston County project manager, she’s been involved in Republican politics since she was 15, with a long history of party leadership. She ran for the slot because she wants to ensure that “those who have worked hard in the trenches for years” represent Georgia in Cleveland.

“It took me years of hard work, passion and innovation to gain the respect to reach those positions,” she added. “Which isn’t always easy as a young female, whether it’s professionally or politically.”

And many are simply looking to be a key part of what could be the wildest, most unpredictable convention in decades. Alton Russell, 77, is a professional storyteller from Columbus who won a delegate slot at last month’s state convention. While he was an early supporter of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, he’s eager to see the party rally behind Trump.

But Russell, whose specialty is cowboy stories from America’s frontier era, has an ulterior motive as well.

“I’m hoping to develop some fun stories out of this,” he said. “You never know — we’re fixing to make some history.”

After all, it could bring a taste of the Wild West.

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