CLAXTON - Celebrating 25 years in the Georgia Senate with supporters in Evans County, Sen. Jack Hill announced Thursday night that he will seek a 14th term in 2016.
With Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle attending the reception at Claxton's Veterans Community Center to praise and congratulate him, Hill gave what amounted to an endorsement of Cagle in a future run for governor. That couldn't be realized until 2018, when Gov. Nathan Deal's second term ends.
Unlike the governor, state senators stand for election every two years. But in an interview, Hill, 71, spoke of the 4th District's future in terms of a decade.
"Elections are about the future. I mean, it's not about what you've done," Hill said. "It's about where are we headed, and I believe the next 10 years in our part of the state is going to be a golden period, a golden opportunity for economic development, for bringing jobs to these small towns like Claxton."
Claxton and Evans County now employ an economic development director, Michelle Pfeffer, through their Economic Development Authority, Hill noted. He mentioned the deepening of Savannah's port, accessible through the interstate highways, as one source of potential new business.
"But we've got to be proactive. We can't wait, assuming that it's going to come to us," Hill said. "We've got to work at it, and I think Evans County is ready to do that."
The 4th District includes Bulloch, Candler, Evans, Effingham and portions of Emanuel and Tattnall counties. Hill wields statewide influence as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Cagle described as a powerful position offering insight into "every strategic move."
Hill didn't rule out remaining in his Senate post for the full decade.
"Nobody can tell the future, but I see plenty of work to do, and I believe that my experience and the connections and the relationships I've built can help us," he said.
A two-party past
First elected in 1990, Hill took office as a Democrat in 1991 with Gov. Zell Miller, so far the last Democrat to head the state government. Hill was one of several legislators who switched to the Republican Party in 2002, after Sonny Perdue, also a former Democrat, was elected as Georgia's first Republican governor since the 1870s.
"I've been able to help the district by being in the Republican Party, and that was what my service was all about," Hill said. "I'm not all that political, but I'm all about trying to help my district, and that's the way I thought I could help the district the best."
Since Hill's party switch, Republicans have solidified control, and his influence has risen. Perdue's two terms have been followed by Deal's two, and Cagle in 2006 was elected as Georgia's first Republican lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor serves as Senate president.
But Cagle had been elected as a senator 12 years before that, in 1994. A few years later, Cagle and Hill shared on office suite. In those days, Hill chaired the Higher Education Committee, on which Cagle served as a member.
"I was a Republican, I was kind of an outcast, and the only one who'd hang around with me was Senator Hill," Cagle said, eliciting laughter. "But the beauty that I quickly realized then was, this is a person who not only has institutional knowledge, really understanding the process of politics, the process of government, but he also has a huge heart, a heart that cares about people."
Addressing the crowd, Hill in turn called Cagle a man of principle, whose fairness is appreciated by lawmakers of both parties.
"I just can't tell you how proud I am to have him here tonight, how proud I am to work with him, and how I'd really like to work with him maybe in a different position a little higher up the ladder one day," Hill said.
In the interview, he had been more specific about his hopes for Cagle.
"We go back a long way," Hill said. "He's a good guy, he really is, a great leader. I'd like to help him be governor one day."
But Thursday's reception was for Hill. The Evans County commissioners and the city councils of Bellville, Claxton, Daisy and Hagan passed a resolution naming Aug. 27, 2015, Sen. Jack Hill Appreciation Day.
"This is a special day for Evans County, and we hope that it will always be remembered as a special day for Sen. Jack Hill," said Claxton attorney Bill Callaway, who unveiled the resolution plaque.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., elected last year from the 12th Congressional District, told the crowd, estimated at 200 people, that he had just attended an event with Deal.
"I have to confess, I just went up to an event with the governor in Statesboro," Allen said. "We didn't have near this many people. Y'all don't tell the governor, OK?"
Allen then told Hill, "Well, obviously, all these folks here love and appreciate the many, many years of your service to this community, our state and our country."
Noting that he had called on Hill repeatedly in getting to know the district, Allen thanked him for his friendship and counsel.
Asked later, Allen said the event with Deal was a gathering with some mutual supporters at a private home.
Help with the DOT
Interviewed briefly, Claxton Mayor Luther Royal called Hill "everybody's man" to call on for help with state government.
In one recent example, the state Department of Transportation denied a permit for an access to U.S. Highway 280 for a planned new Parker's convenience store in the middle of Claxton. Hill reportedly asked the DOT to consider a revised plan.
"He came up at night and walked it, measured it and called us back and said, 'I think we can work that out,' and we got the Parker's because of it," Royal said.
Evans County District 2 Commissioner Jill Griffin said she was pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd.
"It just says so much about Jack Hill," she said. "He's been a wonderful representative for all of us for all these years."
Hill was accompanied by his wife, Ruth Ann Hill, a retired elementary school principal and teacher. They have three children and seven granddaughters. Jack Hill operated an independent grocery store for decades and also had a career as a unit commander in the Georgia Air National Guard.
Hill said he has tried to follow the example set by the late Sen. Joe Kennedy, whom he succeeded in the 4th District seat. Kennedy, a Claxton resident, served as the Senate's president pro tem before retiring to run for lieutenant governor in 1990. He died in 1997.
Callaway also presented Hill an oversized, symbolic check for $25,000 from "Friends of Jack Hill - 4th Senatorial District." The check represented many smaller campaign contributions, said Tippins Bank President C. Paul Eason, whose signature was on it.
The reception was not limited to Evans County residents, Eason noted.
"There were some folks there from Bulloch, ... Tattnall and Evans," he said. "It was a community effort."
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.