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How Gainesville Democrat, Republican put ‘community’ first over politics in their friendship
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Angela Middleton, Democrat, left, and Johnny Varner, Republican, are on the opposite side politically, but they still have much in common with community projects. - photo by Scott Rogers

Longtime Hall County friends Angela Middleton and Johnny Varner may be political opposites, but they have found their middle ground — and they believe other Democrats and Republicans can unite as well. 

“To help in this polarized time, we could start talking more about community,” said Middleton, 59, a retired educator.  

That’s where Middleton, a Democrat, and Varner, a Republican, both staunch in their political views, have put their time and efforts.  

Together, they’re working to restore part of the old E.E. Butler High School off Athens Highway, making it in a “one-stop shop” for community classes and services. Over the years, they’ve also pitched in to help with United Way, the Beulah Rucker Museum off Athens Highway and the 50th anniversary event of the old high school’s closing as part of integration. 

They’re so committed to uplifting the area because that’s where they grew up, with the old school once serving as a popular recreation area. 

“This was our focal point, where they told (kids) to leave and get out of the house – this is where we went,” said Varner, 57, who’s retired from the Army. 

The two met up at E.E. Butler earlier this week to talk about their long friendship and the different political paths they’ve traveled. 

Middleton’s father, a longtime Democrat, plus “a group that hung with my dad,” helped influenced her party views. “As I got older, I tried to learn more,” she said. 

As part of her journey, Middleton sought to unseat Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe in 2016. She lost, but it was still a “great experience.” 

“I saw it as an opportunity to be able to help my community in a greater way,” she said. “Besides just being an educator and teaching their children, I could work with adults as well.” 

For her, the appeal of the Democrats is “its platform of inclusiveness,” Middleton said. “I felt accepted a little more. They had this sort of ‘no person left behind’ type of policy, and that’s me. I’m always trying to reach back and grab somebody else.” 

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Angela Middleton, Democrat, right, and Johnny Varner, Republican, are on the opposite side politically, but they still have much in common. - photo by Scott Rogers

Varner traces his political affiliation to serving in the military under Republican President George W. Bush. “He did a lot for the soldiers. I felt like my family’s quality of life became a lot better,” he said.  

That led to looking harder at the GOP. He “saw an alignment” with his own values, including small government, pro-military, high ethics and personal responsibility. 

“Those things are expected of you as a soldier and in your family,” Varner said. 

He began researching Black Republicans, an effort that swayed him further to the GOP.  

“When I came back home, I (was in contact with) the Hall County Republican Party,” Varner said. “I like being around like minds when it comes to politics.” 

Both he and Middleton had left home, only to return later. 

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Johnny Varner, Republican, right, and Angela Middleton, Democrat, are on the opposite side politically, but they still have much in common. - photo by Scott Rogers

Middleton recalls the two meeting up after their return and Varner handing her some materials about Blacks involved with the GOP. 

“It was interesting, I read it,” she said, adding that she didn’t resent the act. 

“He had something he wanted to share, and he shared it. I didn’t get mad. I read it and moved on,” Middleton said. “Knowledge is powerful, and in knowledge, you have the opportunity to make your own decisions. The more informed you are, the more informed a decision you can make.” 

During the interview, Middleton and Varner were careful in talking about key issues of the day, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recovery from the virus. 

“One of the reasons the (virus) is not a top one, two or three (issue for Republicans) is, in my eyes, it’s about personal responsibility,” Varner said. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what I need to do or try to mandate this is what you need to do because this is best for you. I don’t want government to try to tell me how to protect myself.” 

For Middleton, COVID-19 is the priority. 

“I don’t think we’ll get the economy right until we get COVID right, and I don’t think we’ll get COVID right until we can accept doing some things that might hurt the economy a little bit for a little while. I just think they go hand in hand.” 

Asked if politics comes into play in their friendship, which dates to middle school, they just smiled and laughed it off. 

“We’re too busy with projects,” Varner said. 

“Yeah, too busy with community,” Middleton said.