CUMMING, GA.—I first encounter Dog the Bounty Hunter on a Sunday morning between services in a back room at the Christ Community Church in Cumming, a town of some 5,000 people about an hour’s drive from Atlanta. His wife and fellow reality TV star is sitting in the corner with a sleeveless dress, and Dog—his real name is Duane Chapman—is pacing the room, a white shirt unbuttoned to the solar plexus, exposing his leathery chest. The couple sports matching, slightly-longer-than-shoulder-length bleach- blond hair.
They’re here to support Michael Williams, a tall, broad-shouldered and clean-cut state senator who has launched a long-shot campaign to become Georgia’s next governor. Williams, a relative unknown, is working to boost his statewide name recognition ahead of next year’s primary. He has already loaned his campaign a million dollars, called a surprise press conference at the state house to lambast his chief rival and gotten himself condemned by the Southern Poverty Law Center for attending a rally against sharia law.
Now, he has enlisted the celebrity bounty hunter to campaign as his surrogate for the first half of the last week of July, criss-crossing the endless sprawl of the Atlanta suburbs. In between taking smoke breaks and naps, Dog is delivering sermons, filming ads, making fundraising calls and delivering a memorable stump speech in a hotel ballroom — all under the tutelage of his wife, Beth, the president of the National Bail Bondsman Association.
Williams believes he has one ace in the hole—his September 2015 endorsement of Donald Trump, which made him the first state official in Georgia to back the future president. He also has Dog. And as I found out after spending three days watching them campaign together, that is … well, it’s something.
Williams is betting that the bounty hunter’s celebrity — Dog’s outrageous look and his eight-season run on an eponymous A&E reality show have made him a household name in much of the country — convey law-and-order credibility to Republican primary voters, just as Trump used his own reality show to convince millions of Americans of his executive competence. He’s also betting Dog will generate buzz. As it turns out, in the wake of Trump, who rode provocation and controversy to the White House, the Dog shtick — vulgarity, tall tales and a bare chest — is losing its capacity to shock. It’s a testament to just how much politics has changed in the Trump era that everywhere we went, people just seemed to take it all in stride.
In person, Williams, who describes himself as an “introvert,” is far more retiring than his rabble-rousing campaign would lead you to believe. He seems uncertain about the decision of his political consultant Seth Weathers – who towers above us all at a Jonah Ryan-esque 6’ 5” — to invite POLITICO Magazine into the midst of his young campaign.
Dog, who served 18 months in a Texas jail for first-degree murder in the 1970s before turning to bounty hunting, has a ready solution to Williams’ angst. “I need your address,” he tells me, by way of greeting. “In case you write something bad about me.”
A few minutes later, after a 10-member band has wrapped up its invocation, he takes the stage inside the church’s modern auditorium to preach the gospel of Dog, a rambling account of his life story layered with Christian overtones, to a hundred-odd congregants.
After a jailyard conversion to bounty hunting, Dog meets the future Mrs. Dog — then an assistant to a Democratic state senator in Colorado — when the latter is arrested for shoplifting a lemon in the ’80s. Two decades later, they land a reality show on A&E.
In between, Mrs. Dog convinces her husband to wear nothing but a leather vest for an appearance on Fox News, and the bounty hunter uses the spot to deliver a prophecy, declaring it will take him exactly seven days to capture the fugitive cosmetics heir Andrew Luster.
At another point in Dog’s narrative, as our hero sits in a courtroom fighting possible extradition to Mexico, Mrs. Dog starts swaying in her seat in the gallery, doing “the Holy Ghost shuffle,” and Dog follows her lead. The couple forms a sort of divine force field between them, which ensnares the prosecutor, temporarily choking the man so that he cannot address the court, thereby foiling the extradition.
Dog’s delivery lacks the hypnotic mania of Trump’s — the two reality stars have met each other on the motivational speaking circuit through their work with Tony Robbins — but many of the same raw ingredients are there: free-association, self-mythologizing and off-color humor.
At various points, Dog describes himself as a “half-breed Indian,” brags that he can speak Spanish — ticking off the words “marijuana” and “burrito” —and occasionally calls out to Beth, who sits in the front row of the sanctuary, to help him recall details. Just what, exactly, any of this has to do with electing Michael Williams is anyone’s guess, but apparently it makes for effective preaching. After the sermon, Weathers passes along a note from pastor Jason Skipper: “Over 25 people made a decision for Christ today!!!! Most of those were people I had never seen before.”
Williams has made less of an impression on the congregation. “He was kind of quiet,” says an usher outside the sanctuary. “He needs to be a little more outgoing to get elected.”
Indeed, Williams faces a number of obstacles to claiming the state’s open governor’s seat. His two top opponents, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, have the advantages of statewide office, and even State Sen. Hunter Hill, another relative newcomer, has to date outraised Williams, who has loaned his own campaign a million dollars, a sum he plans to at least double over the course of the race.
An accountant by trade, Williams, 43, made his fortune operating a string of Sports Clips barbershop franchises after stints at Arthur Andersen and the clothing manufacturer VF Corporation.1
He sold off the barbershops in 2013 — later citing the headache of Obamacare as the impetus — and launched a state senate bid against fellow Republican Jack Murphy, a well-known incumbent, beating Murphy in what turned out to be the most expensive state senate race in Georgia history in 2014.
Weathers, his consultant on that race, went on to serve as Trump’s first Georgia state director in 2015, and Williams served as the Trump’s Georgia co-chairman, introducing the future president at a rally that October, at a time when few other politicians would touch him.
This January, Weathers and Williams traveled up to Washington for Trump’s Inauguration, which the bounty hunter and his wife also attended.
Before the inaugural festivities, Dog was overcome with the strong premonition that something major would go down in D.C. “I said, ‘Somebody’s going to try to shoot the president, and I’m going to jump on him,’" Dog recalls. Once in Washington, he says the foreboding only grew. "I seen all these FBI agents around me, CIA, and one of them came up to me and said, ‘Dog, you’re one of the targets’, and I said, ‘For who?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not going to tell you that, but if they want to take out somebody who stands for strong law and order, it’s going to be you.’"
Happily, the most notable incident that befell Dog in the capital was his meeting with Williams, brokered by Weathers, who knows Mrs. Dog through work he does for the National Bail Bondsman Association. As the president of that group, Mrs. Dog is on the warpath against state and federal bail reform laws and their chief proponents: George Soros, Rand Paul, Kamala Harris and Chris Christie. Mostly Chris Christie2. At the Inauguration, the foursome bonded over a shared love of law enforcement, and the Dogs pledged to help Williams should he run for governor.
Williams entered the race in June and immediately made a splash at the state Republican convention, where in his speech he claimed he had been offered the chairmanship of the senate appropriations committee backstage if he would agree to abandon his run.
Days later, Williams drew national attention when he attended a “March Against Sharia” in Atlanta and posed for photographs with members of an armed militia who flashed the “okay” hand sign for the camera.3
In July, Williams struck again, announcing a snap press conference at the statehouse “regarding reprehensible actions” by Cagle, a favorite of the state’s GOP establishment. At the presser, he accused Cagle of blocking legislation that would have raised police pay, but did not produce any evidence.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and establishment Republicans panned the press conference. "I think he walked out of that with less support than when he walked in," says one Republican operative in the state, who called Williams the “boy who cried wolf.”
Williams contends that he is simply pacing his bomb-throwing, saving the most explosive salvos for later stages of the race. “We’re going to expose the process,” he says. “We have a very, very long campaign and there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to come out.”
The burn-it-all-down campaign style has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Trump, though his backers protest that Williams was running the same sort of campaign back in 2014. In essence, his supporters say, Trump ran his playbook to win the presidency.
Either way, bomb-throwing does not come naturally to Williams. He describes public speaking as “outside my comfort zone” and his delivery remains stilted. He’s started mixing it up with critics on social media, but he still mispronounces the president’s favorite social media platform as “Tweeter.”
Williams becomes most animated when describing waste and mismanagement in state government, like the $33 million that has gone missing from the Department of Corrections. He is also bonkers about the transformative potential of the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin. From behind the wheel of his very on-message car, a fiscally responsible Honda Accord with a small crate of munitions in the trunk, Williams says he’s considering the idea of making Georgia the first state to accept tax payments in the form of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. “That would put us on the map.”
For the less-wonky stuff, Williams has Dog, whose show is more popular in Georgia than just about anywhere else.
Though Cagle’s representative initially laughs when asked about Dog’s role in the race, his campaign comes back later with a statement. “When you have a mess like Michael’s campaign, you need less ‘bounty hunter’ and more ‘Bounty paper towels,’” it reads. “Michael and Dog can’t get traction because Georgians know and trust Casey Cagle as a conservative leader.”
Cagle’s campaign also does some light opposition research on the bounty hunter, passing along an April 2015 clip from the Fox show “Outnumbered” in which Dog speaks favorably of Hillary Clinton and her husband, surprising the Fox hosts, who cut him off to segue into a negative segment about the Clinton Foundation4, though not before Dog can say, “I’m a Republican, but I have faith in the dynamic duo.”
On Monday, the bounty hunter and his wife tape an episode of their podcast with the candidate before decamping to Buford for a fundraising dinner at Adam’s Restaurant and Piano Bar, an upscale joint owned by a Moroccan immigrant with tasteful abstract art lining its exposed brick walls.
There, Dog trashes Clinton and enchants the gathered donors – a group that includes a couple pastors, a few undertakers, a local Tea Party activist, and Jamie Ensley, a former chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans — with tales of the time he bailed two nephews of Egypt’s since-deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, out of jail.
"My uncle is Mubarak, king of Egypt," Dog recalls one of the Egyptians telling him, to which he says he responded, "Yeah, my uncle is Billy Graham." When one of the young men begins filling out paperwork in Arabic, Dog chides him, "Don’t be stupid. Fill this out in American."
All of this yields Dog the promise of a fine Arabian horse, but he is visited by concerned Department of Defense officials, who’ve been listening in on his calls with the Egyptians. The resolution of the story is unclear, as it bleeds into a possibly related tale in which Dog accidentally reveals the location of Osama Bin Laden on television years before the terrorist leader’s death.
The donors are impressed. “I think he’s a great American,” Ensley says.
Most of the dinner is off the record, but Mrs. Dog insists that I take down many of her thoughts. Besides using the word “de-crap-idated” to describe rundown neighborhoods and quoting Ernest Hemingway5, she mostly talks about Christie, whom she singles out as an example of a Republican who has irredeemably lost his way. “You’ve got to circle the wagons and shoot inwards when that happens," she says.
The next morning, Dog films social media ads with Williams, and in the afternoon, the crew huddles in a shared conference room at Weathers’ co-working space to make fundraising calls to friends of the campaign. Williams has stepped out to fetch burgers and left his cell phone with Dog, who has put it on speakerphone as he tries out various sales pitches with his sunglasses pulled down over his eyes.
"Fee-fi-fo-fum, here I come for 5,000 bucks. Get ready," he says, and, "I’ve got a business proposition for you. You’ve got Visa-Mastercard, right?"
Reaching the voicemail of one Williams acquaintance, Dog says that he’s stolen the candidate’s credit card. "If you don’t call me back in 15 minutes we’re going to hit it for five grand,” Dog warns. “Uh, two-minute warning!"
Few potential donors are picking up their phones, prompting the bounty hunter, to sigh, "Damn, all these Republicans got jobs."
Beth suggests that Dog switch tacks, instead calling bail bondsmen, who revere the Dogs, and who, it turns out, are more likely than lawyers and bankers to answer their phones on a weekday afternoon.
"How do you pronounce your name?” Dog asks the first one he reaches. “Seat-a-bomb? What tribe are you with? I’m half Apache."6
Dog notes that Williams is open to medical marijuana and passes the phone off to Beth, who seals the deal. “If you determine this is someone who’s going to help our industry, I’m 100 percent in,” the bondsman says, pledging to donate.
Listening in on the fundraising sessions are two old friends of the couple, Larry and Gus, sexagenarians sporting near-identical gray goatees, gray ponytails and pierced ears. Larry, a retired caterer, is liberally dispensing political fundraising advice. "I’d have a follow-up call in five minutes," he advises after Dog hangs up on the bondsman. Fifteen seconds later, Larry has pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and called the bondsman back, tentatively suggesting that the man donate $5,000 and asking him in a Jersey accent for his credit card information.
The bondsman asks if there’s a website he can visit instead, and the conversations seems to stall as the man begins to equivocate.
"See, they’re bondsmen,” Dog says. “They’re afraid it’s a scam.”
Dog then whispers stage directions to Larry, who still has the man on speakerphone, telling him to say, “Let me get Dog.”
“Let me get Dog,” says Larry a few seconds later, handing the phone back to the bounty hunter.
“I realize you might think this is a fucking scam," Dog tells the bondsman, who is eventually talked back into giving money, pledging $2500.
The call is a success, though the mood in the room briefly turns when I ask Dog about his Wikipedia page, which describes his mother’s extraction as German, rather than Apache — raising Elizabeth Warren-esque questions about his true heritage. "Wikipedia is a piece of shit,” Beth protests. “It doesn’t even matter."
Dog says that he’s taken two DNA swabs and that he has an official card back home attesting to his ancestry.7
Soon, a reporter from the local Forsyth County News shows up. "We’re literally in a time of war,” Dog tells him while puffing a cigarette out in front of the building. “We’re in a time of recession.”8
Then Dog, 64, heads back to his hotel to for a nap, posing for photographs with a handful of fans on his way out of the office complex.
The final stop of Dog’s campaign swing is a Tuesday-evening gathering at a Sonesta hotel in Duluth. The mass rallies haven’t started at this early stage in the campaign, and the ticketed event draws a mostly khakis-and-boat-shoes crowd of about 30 Georgians, who sit at tables festooned with ornate centerpieces: bottles filled with string lights sitting on top of log slabs strewn with pebbles.
Only one family looks like it’s stepped out of Southern populism central casting, that of Dog fan Andie Dick, who learned about the event on Facebook and brought along her husband, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. Dog hasn’t yet won Williams her support, but the bounty hunter has won him an audience. “I don’t think I’ll be voting for Michael based on Dog, but that’s why I’m here," she says.
Her husband, David, who works in flooring, wears a white T-shirt with a Confederate flag decal that says “Dixie Classic” on the front and “Don’t Tread on Me” on the back. Though he paid $270 for the tickets, an early anniversary present to his wife, he describes his opinion of Dog as “indifferent."9
Post-nap, Dog arrives about an hour late, around 6 p.m. After perfunctory opening remarks by Williams, the bounty hunter takes the stage.
It is not until Dog stands at the podium, shades down over his eyes, framed between bouquets of red, white and blue balloons, that the whole exercise becomes fully surreal, like the set of an ad for a car dealership’s Presidents Day Sale.10
His stump speech includes considerable overlap with his sermon, though with several new twists. "I’ve tased over 2,000 human beings," Dog boasts, while dinging Christie and vouching for Williams’ personal behavior.11
We learn additional details of his early life on a Native American reservation that foreshadow his foray into politics. “The Navajos would dance around me and say, ‘This is him. He’s going to lead millions,’” Dog recalls.
And he reveals more about his approach to law and order when he divulges that employees at Western Union often help him trace payments made by the fugitives he chases. "It’s not illegal,” Dog insists. “Some guys have to have a warrant but not the Dog. I have morality."
Some lines, like his condemnations of Democrats, are crowd-pleasers. Others draw polite, perplexed silence, like when he speaks of his desire to let most undocumented immigrants find a path to citizenship, or when he opines, “Maybe homosexuality is not demon possession … Maybe they’re all just different than us."12
Overall, the crowd appears satisfied by the performance. “He very well articulates what we all feel and think as conservatives," says Jan Taylor, a semi-retired Williams supporter from the affluent suburb of Johns Creek.
Though this is Dog’s final campaign event of this swing, Weathers and Williams are planning to have him come back for more and they have their eyes on other conservative TV celebrities.Trump confidant Roger Stone, who has gained a measure of campaign trail celebrity himself, plans to endorse Williams and campaign with him in Georgia later this month. An advocate of campy campaigning — he was part of a small inner circle that advised Trump to announce his presidential run with a flamboyant kickoff and debated bringing bikini-clad women, clowns and a circus elephant to the event — Stone says that while elites may scoff at the spectacle of Dog on the trail, the bounty hunter could make for a potent surrogate. “Voters like the pop culture,” he says. “Voters like celebrities who don’t come from the world of politics”
Stone also says that Trump ought to throw his weight around in intra-party politics and endorse Williams in the primary. Predicting the president’s behavior is never easy, but a former Trump campaign official from the Southeast who’s discussed the matter with campaign leadership says an endorsement is unlikely. “Not that they don’t appreciate the support Williams gave, but there’s no reason to wade into that race.”
Meanwhile, Republican operatives in Georgia view Williams’ willingness to spend his personal fortune as a bigger asset than his relationship with Dog. “Anybody who has pumped a million dollars into his campaign and has a another million to put in is real,” says one such operative, who adds that he remains skeptical of the state senator’s chances of overthrowing Georgia’s political establishment. “President Trump had 100 percent name recognition, but Michael’s trying to run the same race without that.”
Whether or not Williams pulls off his upset, the Dogs appear determined to continue their pivot from bounty hunting to politics. After the speech, Mrs. Dog tickles my belly and beckons me over to a circle of chairs outside the ballroom, where she sips a two-olive martini and continues to expound her views of Christie. "The day he sat his fat ass on that beach,” she says, “That was the day his real truth was revealed." And, "The whole country will raise a ruckus if he’s brought into the Trump administration, even to take out the trash."
Mrs. Dog’s plans include continuing to raise a ruckus in New Jersey to make the reversal of bail reform a campaign issue and one last jab at Christie as he exits the scene, helping to push a wrongful death lawsuit against the governor lodged by the family of a man murdered by someone released from prison under the state’s new bail reform law.
She has longer-term plans as well, and they include a state senate seat. "I might run in Hawaii," she says, though her ambitions do not end there. "I would like to eventually be U.S. Senate.”