Especially in this season, voters are inclined to think of politicians as creatures that jump into existence out of nothing more substantial than a yard sign.
This is mostly untrue. All have parents, of course. But a rare few are indeed self-created.
In a strange coincidence driven by opposition research, we have learned— in the span of three or four days — that two candidates for the state House, both Republican and both male, are not who they once were.
They have had their names legally changed. One said he had to cut a final tie with his father, the other said he needed to create a bond with his.
For many women in the audience, changing identities is a rite of passage. No big deal, they murmur. It is different for men — though not unheard of.
President Gerald Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr. President Bill Clinton was, out of the womb, William Jefferson Blythe III.
But name changes for men are still rare, and each instance is usually accompanied by a soap opera.
Jason Goldfarb was a middle-school student in Tennessee when his parents divorced. His mother reverted to her maiden name of Shepherd when she brought her son to Georgia — and enrolled him in school as Jason Shepherd. His degree from the University of Georgia bears that name.
Now 34, Shepherd is running against state Rep. Terry Johnson of Marietta, the Democratic incumbent.
On Monday, the state Democratic party produced documents indicating that, in 2000 and as Jason Goldfarb, Shepherd was arrested on a charge of domestic violence. His live-in fiancée accused him of attempting to strangle her.
“That is absolutely not true. I never said or did anything like that,” Shepherd said. “She makes things up, to make herself into a victim.”
The charge was dropped when the young woman declined to answer a Cobb County court summons. Shepherd said he nonetheless went through a diversion program as “an effort of good faith.”
Shepherd said he told GOP leaders about the incident when they recruited him to run. “I have been, on a small scale, open and honest about it,” he said.
Shepherd formally changed his name in 2003. Not to escape the blight of a battery accusation, he said, but to sever a final tie with a father who never showed up. And to simplify the paperwork needed to bring his German bride to the United States.
In 2008, Michael Harden of Toccoa was elected to his first term in the House. In the state Capitol, he is best known for proposing random drug tests for those receiving state unemployment benefits.
This year, Harden faces Democrat Chris Irvin, grandson of longtime state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.
It has come out that Michael Harden was originally Michael Holland, the out-of-wedlock son of a Toccoa restaurant owner and Walter “Doc” Harden, the married owner of a traveling carnival company.
“I played the hand I was dealt,” the son said. “He supported us somewhat, financially.”
In 1998, as a senior in high school, Michael Holland sold some hogs at a show and raised the $500 necessary to pay a lawyer to accompany him for an appearance before a Stephens County judge — where he became Michael Harden.
“I don’t consider it suddenly being something else,” said the 30-year-old owner of a log home company. “As a young man, you pride yourself as a man and where you’re from. I was proud to be my dad’s son.”
Doc Harden died in 2007, without a will. Michael Harden was named co-administrator of the $204,000 estate, along with Doc Harden’s legally adopted son, David Harden, 58.
They were the sole heirs.
Michael Harden’s Democratic opponent, Chris Irvin, has produced a signed and notarized affidavit from David Harden, claiming that the state lawmaker insinuated himself into a profitable situation.
“At a vulnerable time, I put a lot of faith in the possibility that I may have had a brother that I never knew. But things quickly changed when this alleged brother stole from me,” David Harden said.
David Harden admits a criminal past. He was caught with “a little weed” in the late ’80s, has been picked up for DUI and carrying a concealed weapon. “I never killed nobody or robbed no banks,” he said.
Michael Harden says he has known David Harden longer than the affidavit implies. “When my dad passed away, I had to bail him out to make it to the funeral,” the state lawmaker said. David Harden agreed that a disagreement over a judge’s fine had landed him in jail.
Nonetheless, David Harden says his half-brother can’t account for thousands of dollars from their father’s estate. And maybe shouldn’t have had a share in the first place.
“I did my brother right,” said Michael Harden, who said the cash went to the debts “that were clearly my dad and his wife’s liabilities.”
And so this small-town dispute that should be addressed in court will be settled at the polls on Nov. 2 — giving identity politics an entirely new meaning.