Scott Holcomb

Atlanta host for 2013 Young Leaders meeting describes benefits of the Foundation’s flagship program and shares insights as veteran, lawyer, and Georgia State Representative 

October 11, 2013

Scott Holcomb, a member of the 2012 class of French-American Foundation Young Leaders, represents District 81 in the Georgia House of Representatives.

He is the Minority Caucus Chief Deputy Whip, and he serves on the Public Safety and Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs, Higher Education, and Juvenile Justice Committees. In 2012, Scott was recognized as one of Georgia Trend magazine's “40 Under 40 Outstanding Georgians.”

An experienced attorney, Scott began his legal career with the U.S. Army JAG Corps, where he served as a prosecutor and international law attorney. He deployed overseas three times for Operations Joint Forge (Bosnia), Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Following his military service, Scott practiced law at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP. In 2007, he became the general counsel for J.P. Turner & Company, L.L.C., an Atlanta-based brokerage firm. He has also served as an adjunct professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. 

Scott has provided commentary to CNN, BBC, NPR, France 24, and other media outlets on foreign policy and politics, and he has been published by the Chicago Journal of International Law and several newspapers. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a principal with the Truman National Security Project. Scott received his MBA from the University of Georgia, his JD from West Virginia University, and his BA from the University of Connecticut. p>

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As the 2013 Young Leaders annual meeting is set to begin on October 16 in Atlanta, where Scott will welcome his fellow participants to the Southern metropolis he calls home, he shared with the Foundation his thoughts on this program, now in its 32 year, as well as on political priorities and partisan conflicts from the local to the national level.

Scott, we appreciate you sharing some of your insights with us. We are delighted to have you among our Young Leaders and that you will welcome the Young Leaders to Atlanta, where you  are a state representative.

This will be your second year taking part in the Young Leaders program, having joined the group in Paris and Le Havre in 2012. What was the best part of that experience for you? More generally, what do you think is the benefit of the Young Leaders program?
The best part of the experience was getting to know the other Young Leaders. I have so much respect for them, and I’m in awe of what they have done and will do. I felt privileged to have had the chance to participate. The most valuable part of the program is that the experience did not end when we departed Le Havre; the friendships have lasted and the conversations and meetings have continued.

Had you previously had much contact with France or the French in your career? What have the connections you made with your fellow Young Leaders – French and American – brought to your life – politically, professionally, or personally?
I had not had much contact with France or the French previously, so this program has been extremely rewarding. Among other experiences, I’ll never forget walking the beaches of Normandy with the French Young Leaders and listening to them share stories about the impact of World War II on their families. That was really powerful, and it made visiting Normandy so much more profound than it would have been otherwise.

I also loved visiting Le Havre. Edouard Philippe, the Mayor and a member of the National Assembly, was a terrific host and I greatly enjoyed meeting him, talking about politics in France and the United States, and learning more about his city.

As far as the connections, I’m very grateful for the new group of wonderful friends that I’ve made. They’ve been incredibly supportive and encouraging. In fact, one of the first congratulatory notes I received after winning my last election was from the French Young Leaders. That meant a lot.

In the last Foundation Forum, we featured the city of Atlanta as the host for this year’s Young Leaders Annual Meeting. We pointed out that Atlanta is home to the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the United States and to a number of noteworthy institutions in media, government, business, education, and philanthropy, such as CNN, the Center for Disease Control, the Carter Center, CARE, and numerous prominent universities, to name but a few. What would you say is the greatest benefit of bringing the Young Leaders – a group of up-and-coming prominent individuals from both France and the United States – to Atlanta this year?
That Foundation Forum was terrific, and I really enjoyed reading it. I think it is fantastic that the Young Leader’s Annual meeting will be held in Atlanta this year. There’s a great deal more to the United States than New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago. Atlanta is a great city and an important city for the future of the United States. It’s the bellwether for the American South, the commercial gateway to both South and Central America, and the biggest economic driver for this entire region. It also holds a central role in the unique story of America’s struggles with self-government, race, and civil rights. If you want to understand America, Atlanta is a great place to come learn.

Atlanta is also a place that many international visitors know only because of our airport. Many of the Young Leaders have probably never really seen Atlanta. Since Atlanta’s national and international influence will be rising throughout the careers of the conference participants, I think it’s a perfect venue for a Young Leader’s meeting.

My biggest single wish is that everyone enjoys the visit. I really hope everyone leaves Atlanta with nothing but fond memories of their time spent here, and I also hope everyone will want to return.

You’ve been very involved in the planning of this year’s annual meeting. What activity or meeting are you most looking forward to?
All of it! And I can’t wait for it to start.

Let’s move on from the Young Leaders program to your impressive career and background. We’d love to have you share some insights and hear more about the work that led to your selection as a Young Leader.

Your legal career has transitioned from the military to corporate, private practice, and now you are an elected official. What made you want to get into politics? How did your previous experiences inspire that decision, and how have they been of benefit since you were first took office in 2011?
I wanted to get into politics because I believe in service, and I thought I’d have something to offer. I’ve been very lucky in my professional career, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to work in different areas.  And those experiences have prepared me to be an effective legislator because I understand the issues, and perhaps even more importantly, I often know the right questions to ask.

In particular, my background as a veteran has been really helpful. I’ve been able to add value to our discussions on veterans’ issues and have helped improve several pieces of legislation for the benefit of veterans.

I’ve also found that it’s invaluable to be a lawyer. While it’s certainly not a requirement, it absolutely helps to have a legal background. Our legislature consists of citizen-legislators from all walks of life, and there are varying backgrounds, experiences, and educational levels.  It’s really common for the non-lawyers to ask the lawyers to help them from time to time with interpreting or drafting language.

As a Georgia State Representative, what would you say are some of the greatest issues facing the state of Georgia and your own District 81, which comprises parts of DeKalb County just northeast of Atlanta? What would you say has been your greatest achievement or most rewarding experience since taking public office?
First and foremost, we have to do better educating our kids for the world they will inherit. I really worry about this, and it’s why I’ve focused much of my time and attention on education. Last year, we had a crisis with the school board in my county, and I took a very difficult but important stand and called for the Governor to remove members of the school board. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I believed it was the right decision for the students, the community, and my constituents. 

I’m proud that I’ve taken a stand on a number of tough issues and particularly that I’ve done so while being respectful to the members of the opposing party. I don’t like the current tone of our politics. The nastiness makes it hard to make good decisions and discourages good people from getting involved. But to change politics, the people in public life have to decide to change it. I’ve been able to make genuine friendships with my peers in both parties. I’m particularly proud that I won the endorsements of some prominent Republicans during my last campaign. That’s just about unheard of these days.  

On a larger scale, what are the greatest political issues facing this nation? Are these the same as those facing our states, or communities at a local level? How would you describe the political environment in this nation currently?
The greatest political issue we face is intense polarization. Sure, there are areas where people disagree, but the truth is the majority of Americans are far less divided than the partisans would have you believe.  Until there is a widespread commitment to put country before partisan advantage, I don’t have any confidence that we can break through the logjams and non-stop brinksmanship at the federal level. It’s terrible, and it erodes the public’s confidence. Bad governance stands to make America weaker.

We also need to get our fiscal house in order. Our debt is a strategic weakness and should be treated seriously. Also, it’s clear to me that our politics are harming the nation’s economic recovery.  The United States is doing well compared to the rest of the developed world but not nearly as well as we might be doing if our politicians weren’t grandstanding so badly. I think our friends in France, and everywhere else, want us to get past this pattern and get serious about growing the economy. In an interconnected world, that would be good for everyone.   

While the federal issues are different from state and local issues, the two are very much connected. Our elections have become more nationalized, even at the state and local levels, and many voters make their choices based on what is happening in Washington.  

I have found that at the state and local levels, voters will more readily entertain electing someone from a different political party, particularly if they know them. I have no doubt that this was a major factor in my last win in a district that was designed to be a Republican district.  

Earlier this year, the National Journal reported that you were considering pursuing an open Senate seat or even the gubernatorial election in 2014, and it seems that there are a number of people who support the idea. What are your thoughts on pursuing national office? What would a gubernatorial or national election change about your relation to politics, and how would you hope to change politics in such a position?
It is a flattering and humbling experience to have wise, respected people call you up and say:  “Have you thought about running for the Senate?”  or “Are you going to get into the Governor’s race?” That’s happened to me, and sure, that experience makes you think about things.

Thus far, it hasn’t been the right time for me. I certainly don’t need to run for my ego. If I do run for higher office down the line, it will be for the same reason that I ran for the seat in the state legislature – because I have something meaningful to offer and because I know I can serve well. Honestly, if I ever step into national politics, programs like this one help build perspective that contributes to the kind of leader I could be.

I strive to be true to my principles as a state-level politician. I would like to think that I could bring that sort of grounded-ness to a bigger race. I don’t have any illusions that I could singlehandedly fix what’s wrong with government. I do believe, though, that we need more people in public life who will have the courage to stand up against some of the foolishness that is prevalent in the political system today. Leadership matters, and leaders with integrity can help set the nation back on a more productive path.

You recently appeared on CNN to talk about the situation in Syria, which clearly remains a subject of strong debate amid uncertainty as to how to proceed both for the United States and the international community. What are the greatest legal and political stakes in Syria? Do you think the Obama administration and the international community have reacted correctly to the situation in Syria? How does the reported use of chemical weapons change the situation? Should it? 
The issues in Syria are extremely complicated, and there are no easy answers. It is simply too big a topic to answer well in this setting. I do think we should all be pleased that diplomatic efforts and international pressure may succeed in removing the threat of chemical weapons. That’s an important item, but it is only one piece of the picture. Syria poses ongoing challenges to regional stability and is a huge humanitarian crisis that demands the world’s attention.

We like to ask our interviewees to recommend books that have shaped their careers or impacted them personally. What book would you recommend to the French-American Foundation community?
I recommend a book that I just finished – The Disappearing Center by Alan Abramowitz, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta who will speak to the Young Leaders during their visit. His book argues that there has been a major political realignment over the last few decades and those who are politically engaged are also more partisan. I’ve found The Disappearing Center to be the clearest and most cogent explanation of the changes that have led to intense partisanship in America.