Clay Tippins, the vanquished gubernatorial candidate, smiled awkwardly during an interview last week and brought up the question everyone is asking.
“Is Clay a sneaky SOB or a Boy Scout?” he asked.
Tippins — a businessman, Stanford University swimming star and former Navy Seal — looks like the latter.
But a good number of folks, including many in his own Republican Party, lean toward him being the former.
Tippins is the guy who hit “record” on his iPhone, slipped it into his pocket, and then walked into a post-election meeting with gubernatorial front-runner Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who hoped to get Tippins’ endorsement. Instead, Tippins got the veteran pol to make some incriminating admissions. (By the way, “one-party taping” is legal in Georgia.)
On the tape, Cagle admitted that he held his nose and passed an education bill he described as bad “a thousand different ways” in order to screw over another Republican candidate in the primary race.
The bill was to raise the limit on tax credits for private school scholarships to $100 million. On the tape, Cagle reasoned that if he fought it, another opponent, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, might get lots of financial help from a certain super PAC, perhaps $3 million.
Team Casey was afraid of Hill reaching the upcoming runoff because Hill could call himself an Outsider. They figured they’d have a better shot of beating Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who came in second place last month.
“You know, I was the only guy standing in the way (of the scholarship bill before letting it pass,)” Cagle told Tippins. “Is it bad public policy? Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways.”
And it was just between the two of them — until Tippins released a portion of his 90-minute recording to Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Tippins said there are two points he wanted to discuss concerning his decision to tape: The Why. And the How.
First, he said, people often complain about terrible decisions being made by politicians, but then they quickly add that nothing can be done because the system is rigged or there will be retaliation.
“It’s cowardly if people think it’s wrong and don’t do anything,” Tippins said. “So I had this firsthand knowledge about this, so it was a look-in-the-mirror moment.”
By firsthand knowledge, Tippins was referring to his uncle, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a friend and ally of Cagle’s who also opposed the legislation but was pushed aside by the Gov. Lite.
Lindsey Tippins told me he was “troubled” when Cagle gave him pretty much the same explanation three months ago.
Clay Tippins went to meet Cagle after the May 22nd primary election and figured, “I bet he’d talk about it. I’m going to tape it.”
Tippins said he taped it because without a recording, the exchange would have been a he said/he said.
“If you’re going to do anything, you have to do it. Make it count,” said Tippins. “Sometimes, you have to go to extraordinary means.”
He recalled entering hand-to-hand combat training as part of becoming a Navy Seal. Tippins, a product of the suburbs, told a veteran Seal he had never been in a real fight. What should he do?
“He told me, ‘You have to decide, are you going to fight? Or are you going to kick ass?’” Tippins recalled. “If you’re a commando, your goal is to confront bad wherever you can and win the battle. There’s an expression: Never fight fair.”
That is exactly what Team Casey says.
In a statement, Cagle’s campaign said their guy has “fought to advance education throughout his entire career.”
“Clay reached out to Casey to have a ‘confidential, man to man’ conversation about endorsing Casey in the run-off,” Cagle’s campaign statement said. “Casey has said clearly that the words he used during that meeting do not accurately reflect his thoughts on the legislation that he worked to perfect for over a year.”
Perhaps Casey would have been more precise if he’d known a recorder was running.
Cagle’s campaign complains that Tippins coaxed and baited Casey into saying things. They indicate that Cagle might have misspoken to Tippins because he was trying to be nice to the losing candidate’s uncle.
“Clay expressed that his uncle had hurt feelings. Casey wanted to show compassion for a longtime colleague and understanding of Lindsey’s stance on education policy,” the statement said. “He’s the first to admit his attempt at that failed and came out in a way that doesn’t reflect his beliefs or principles.”
Says Tippins, “I took advantage of a situation where a man had to tell the truth. Now the world sees that truth.”
I called around to some veteran legislators, and it seems more of them than not don’t like what Tippins did. I suppose there’s no surprise there. Nobody likes being secretly taped.
“Honorable people carry on private conversations with no expectation they are being secretly recorded,” said longtime state Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican.
State Sen. Steve Henson, a Democrat, said legislators are already on guard for secret taping, now that anyone can be a mole.
This will probably make them even more suspicious. They may even start patting down colleagues and constituents before they speak freely.
Tippins said he has lost a few friends over this, although he is getting a lot more attaboys than not.
“Some people are like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ And others are like, ‘I can’t believe Casey was that damn stupid.’”
Tippins said he weighed the ramifications personally, politically and professionally before performing his undercover operation. It certainly comes with risks.
“If he wins, I’d be the governor’s No. 1 enemy,” he said.
But ultimately, he added, it comes down to this:
“If you’re not worried about the truth I exposed, if you’re worried about the tactics, then that shows where your loyalties lie.”