When Lawton Jordan was 5 years old, he saw the street outside his childhood home in Augusta lined with police cars. The mere fact that they were there, the pageantry of it all, was cooler to him than why they were there: to provide an escort for former governor Jimmy Carter, who was stopping over at the Jordan house during his 1976 presidential campaign.
Jordan’s uncle, Hamilton Jordan, a key adviser to Carter in the campaign and his chief of staff from 1979 to 1980, arranged the overnight stay. But Jordan says that despite “all the cool stuff I saw with Hamilton”—which included family trips to Camp David, “the ultimate vacation spot for a kid, where you could pick up the phone and order a movie and watch it in the private screening room”—it was Jordan’s father who really sparked his interest in politics. “I remember watching political conventions with him when I was growing up,” he says. His father’s interest rubbed off.
It may seem odd, then, to find Jordan, 36, practicing corporate law at Davis, Matthews & Quigley in Atlanta, yet it’s almost a homecoming. “I came to this firm right out of law school,” he says. “I was surprised [coming back after five years] how little the firm has changed. It’s a very stable and personable place, where the partners take a real interest in the associates.”
How Georgia’s favorite nephew weaned himself of politics is a story in itself.
Even while an undergraduate at Wake Forest, as Jordan worked on a couple of state political campaigns, politics wasn’t the goal. He wanted to be a teacher. A month of teaching summer school put the kibosh on that. “I wanted to be more in the thick of things,” he says. “Plus putting up with high school kids is a tough job.”
He wound up in the thick of things—recruited by Keith Mason to work at the Clinton White House in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs from 1994 to 1996. After law school at the University of Georgia, he joined the 2000 Al Gore campaign as Southern political director, then moved from Davis Matthews & Quigley to Atlanta’s McKenna, Long & Aldridge, a law firm well-known for its political connections. He also served as chief legal counsel to the minority caucus in the Georgia Senate in 2002 and 2003.
Jordan also helped found the Red Clay Democrats, a political action committee aimed at young Georgia Democrats (launched, appropriately enough, at Manuel’s Tavern), and remains on its board. “It’s not the salvation of the Democratic Party, by any means,” he says. “But it’s been good at linking people up with politicians and raising a bit of money, about $85,000 so far.”
Politics remains a passion. But it’s not as central to his life as it was. “I do politics as a hobby now,” he says. The reasons for the shift are complex. From a big-picture perspective, Jordan says, politics has gotten disconnected from people, as well as people from politics. “I think it’s politicians’ fault,” he says. “I’m not an expert, but in my opinion, gerrymandering has led to the election of many people in both parties who are at the far extremes. Yet the best politicians are those who cross party lines and don’t get caught up in wedge issues. Now we have too many politicians who do get caught up in those issues, and I think it turns voters off.”
The more time politicians spend on divisive issues such as abortion, gay marriage, evolution and prayer in the schools, Jordan believes, the worse off everyone becomes. “Look at all the other issues that are out there,” he says, ticking off Georgia’s looming problems with transportation, growth and the environment, as well as a massive shortfall in the state’s health care program for uninsured children. “I think people say, ‘I can have more of an impact in the way I live my own life than by getting involved in politics.’ And a lot of the time, they’re right.”
Jordan made a similar decision. “Here I can help our clients who come in with everyday issues that are extremely important, whether it’s dividing up property after a divorce or helping them resolve a business dispute. I thought: My time might be better spent doing this than drafting amendments to some bad abortion bill.”
He adds: “Politics just gets frustrating after a while.”
Jordan also admits that “politics shifted on me.” In 2002, Georgia elected its first Republican governor in 130 years and gave the GOP control of the state Senate; in 2004, the state House followed. Other Southern states had already witnessed this massive, historic shift of power. Georgia was late to the table.
“It was so long in coming that the Democratic Party organization here had become really weak,” Jordan says. He recalls working on a congressional campaign in 1996 and finding that many Democratic Party county chairmen were “well-intentioned, but unable to help much.” When the party was turned out, Jordan found himself “doing government relations [for McKenna] in a state that had become overwhelmingly Republican.” He predicts it will take the Democratic Party eight to 10 years to rebuild in Georgia.
It wasn’t the first time politics shifted on Jordan. In 2000, he was working as the Southern political director for the Gore campaign, planning trips throughout the South. On Election Day, he recalls, “we started getting calls from a hotline to report voting problems at about 7:30 that morning, so we knew there was a ballot issue in Florida, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it.” He spent the day and into the night in the “boiler room,” a small office at campaign headquarters where staff tracked returns. “The networks called Florida for us, but I didn’t believe it,” he says. “I got the Florida director on the phone and said, ‘Have we really won?’ He kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ I was calling him every 15 minutes. Then the networks put Florida back in play, and it was the worst feeling in the world. Now our Florida people were saying, ‘It’s not over; it’s not over.’
“The networks called it for Bush, but we were calling individual boards of elections and we realized the numbers the networks were reporting were not right. At some point, it became apparent that the election wasn’t over, that is was too close to call. I remember someone standing on a chair and saying, ‘We need people to go to Florida.’ I drove home, packed five days of clothes, and by 7 a.m. we were on a plane to Florida.”
The situation, he says, was total chaos. He went to Miami-Dade County and was involved in the recount there until the county canvassing board stopped it. Then he moved on to a recount near Tallahassee. “I was in the middle of a recount and the phone rang and I was told, ‘Stop. The Supreme Court has ordered that no more votes be counted,’” Jordan remembers. “The official decision came a few days later, and I drove home to Augusta.
“It was,” he says with characteristic understatement, “a memorable 35 days.”
Even if the outcome had been different, Jordan says he wouldn’t have headed back to D.C. He knew he was done. “Everybody in D.C. eats and breathes politics, and I did too,” he says. But he knew he didn’t want to be a political assistant the rest of his life. “I wanted to make decisions and have a direct impact on people,” he says. “The things I really enjoyed about my job in D.C. were the times I was able to make an immediate difference—helping the state of Alaska get an airplane, for instance, or helping some cities get more police on the streets.”
He missed Georgia, and he was increasingly drawn to his father’s example that showed how fulfilling a law career could be. “In D.C., it’s like everyone wears a color-coded chart letting you know what their status is, and it becomes visible when they tell you where they work,” Jordan says with a chuckle. “That’s not healthy.”
Jordan met his wife, Jennifer, at UGA. “Definitely the best thing to come out of law school,” he says, proudly showing off a front-page story featuring her in the Fulton County Daily Report. He’s glad to have two lawyers in the family—both of whom like politics. “When I was single, some of my dates didn’t like it when I dragged them to a judges’ dinner or some political speech,” Jordan says, laughing. “Jen finds it just as interesting as I do. I don’t know what that says about us, but we’re certainly a good match.”
As Jordan has turned his attention from the national stage of politics to the more specific concerns of corporate law, he says he has found his place. “The dollars may be lower, but the stakes seem higher,” he says.
As for running for office himself? His very disillusionment with politics—which many voters share—would seem to make him an ideal candidate.
“That’s not necessarily something that’s in my plans,” he says. “I feel that I can stay involved and help people in this job. If anybody runs, it would probably be Jen.”