This story was updated on November 7, 2023, at 11:33 a.m. to add the number of registered voters in Darien and to specify that the town’s mayoral race is nonpartisan.
DARIEN — As residents here go to the polls on Tuesday, the biggest question won’t be whether to extend a 1% sales tax to support local schools, important though it is.
Instead, it’s “Which Bubba?”
The mayoral race in this Coastal Georgia town of some 1,460 people pits two Bubbas against each other: Hugh Bubba Hodge is seeking a fourth term as mayor but he’s facing a stiff challenge from another Bubba — longtime city councilman Augustus Bubba Skeen.
Hodge and Skeen said they aren’t concerned that the presence of two Bubbas on the ballot will confuse voters.who should get the mayor’s job and $788-a-month salary that goes with it.
“There’s no way. It’s a small town, and in a small town, they know me, and they know the other. I’m not at all worried,” Skeen said.
His opponent for the post isn’t taking the small-town familiarity for granted.
“Now I tell people when they say, ‘There’s two Bubbas on the ballot,’ I tell ‘em, ‘Remember Hodge.’ If you don’t do that, remember the incumbent. Let’s keep him in office.”
‘At least they have different last names’
It seems the residents of Darien have been chuckling ever since the candidate filing deadline in late August, when it became clear that Election Day would be a Battle of the Bubbas.
The local newspaper, The Darien News, kicked off the merriment, headlining, “Two Bubbas square off to seek mayor’s seat” and “Two Bubbas qualify to run for mayor.”
The joking hasn’t grown stale. Nor has the concern about bewilderment at the polling place.
“Everybody’s asking, “Well, which Bubba?’” said 90-year-old Alberta Mabry at Darien’s annual fall festival on Saturday, where Hodge and Skeen stumped for votes.
“At least they have different last names,” she said, without conviction.
Still, Skeen said that even his wife has joined the fun.
When asked who she’s voting for, she coyly replies: “I’m voting for Bubba.”
For the candidates, discouraging the Bubba Royale merriment with high-minded pleas to “talk about the issues” instead would be pointless — if not downright harebrained. So, they have leaned into it, too.
“The way the world is now, “we need all the spirit, all the laughter, we can get,” said Hodge, 59.
Before his visitor from up the coast in Savannah even asks about the Battle of the Bubbas, Skeen volunteered: “You know, we have two Bubbas. That’s the only thing that we have in common. The way our city runs and the way it goes — we have totally different views.”
‘Getting a little Bubba’
To Yankees, the term “Bubba,” which has iterations in Hebrew, Yiddish, German and Spanish, is a nickname for a classic southern redneck, someone in the shallow end of the intelligence pool who boasts of their “love of grits and a good sopping syrup,” wrote Lloyd Albritton wrote in an Alabama newspaper, The Atmore Advance, in 2002.
“Bubba” blew into America’s political lexicon in the 1988 presidential election. Republicans used the term against Bill Clinton as political shorthand, in an effort to paint the Arkansas native as a backwater hick and good ol’ boy.
On the other side of the political spectrum, liberal Democrats used it to cast him as a southern conservative in disguise. Either way, the “Bubba factor” was born.
In the South, though, “Bubba” was — and remains — mostly a term of endearment, not only for a baby brother or the first-born son but also a friend.
For the 64-year-old Augustus Kirkland Skeen, Jr., “Bubba” was a solution to a young sibling’s speaking predicament:
“My name was ‘Bubba’ before it was ‘Augustus’ because my sister could not say ‘brother.’ Instead, my sister would say, ‘I’m getting a little Bubba.’ So, it’s ‘Augustus Bubba Skeen,’ in honor of my sister. Plus, it took me to the 5th grade for I could spell ‘Augustus Kirkland Skeen, Jr.’ so ‘Bubba’ was easy.”
Hugh Jenson Hodge got the nickname from his mother.
“I was the youngest in the family. Mama called me ‘Bubba’ and it got started right on up.”
As for the potentially confusing ballot, two Bubbas ended up on it because under Georgia state law, explained Hodge, a candidate isn’t obliged to enter their legal name on the ballot. It’s a matter of preference.
“I’ve checked into it to make sure. I like to cross my t’s and dot my i’s. What they said is that you put it down the way you want it on the ballot.”
‘Pouring more mud’
Darien is a small town. How small?
“There’s no red light. There’s a caution light, but no red light,” says an elderly man sitting at the bar of the Keys North Market and Grill, just off the North Walton Street Bridge, nursing a Bud Light while waiting for the kickoff of the Georgia-Missouri football game.
While Darien is certainly neighborly, there’s also the intriguing and backbiting that are inevitably part of the fabric of life in any small town.
So, not surprisingly, in its final hours the nonpartisan race between Hodge and Skeen has become a Bubba v. Bubba smackdown. This, even though both Bubbas tilt Republican and have worked with each other for years — Hodge as mayor and Skeen as alderman and mayor pro tempore. And this even though each professes a commitment to planned growth and preserving the homes, the squares, and the cemeteries that form the legacy of Georgia’s second-oldest city.
With just a few days to go before the election, Hodge seems on his back foot, fighting for his political life and hinting at conspiracies involving Skeen, whom he doesn’t refer to by name, apparently befitting small town mores. (“I’m not calling any names.”)
“Everybody that’s run against me have done a clean race. Now this one, this guy, this man wants to pour more mud on me than he wants to tell people what he’s gonna do,” he said.
The mayor hinted that moneyed interests in Darien and surrounding McIntosh County have lined up behind Skeen to push their development schemes at the expense of the town’s tourist-attracting historic sites and the county’s less affluent residents.
“He got all of these big supporters, county commissioners, sheriff and all that’s endorsing him for mayor,” he said.
As evidence, he cites a recent city council meeting during which Skeen declaring, during a debate about zoning regulations, that “people coming in and building $300,000 and $400,000 homes didn’t want mobile homes next to them.”
“A lot of people in our county is — it’s a poor county — and that’s all they can afford is that mobile home and they’re doing the best as they can support their family and all,” Hodge said.
Darien proper isn’t the only area threatened by Skeen and his backers, Hodge insisted.
Although Darien’s mayor has no jurisdiction over Sapelo Island, a 75-minute drive and ferry ride away, the same people behind the push to reshape zoning regulations in Darien were behind similar attempts to rezone areas belong to the Hog Hammock community, Hodge said.
Skeen’s election bodes ill for development schemes that better serve the interests of Darien and wider McIntosh County, he warned. “The endorsers don’t endorse you unless they know your will.”
In response to Hodge’s allegations, Skeen told The Current that the kind of spot zoning supported by Hodge to limit the rights of developers “is a destructive concept on any city.”
As for development on Sapelo Island, Skeen said that his fellow 1977 graduate of McIntosh County High School, Roger Lotson, who represents the island as a member of the county commission, “will do for the people of Sapelo Island what needs to be done.” He gave no details.
‘Lucky there aren’t three’
The Battle of the Bubbas will be decided by relatively few voters.
Only 468 voters cast ballots in the last mayoral election, which Hodge won with 58% of the vote. Currently, there are 1,303 registered voters in Darien, according to county election supervisor Elenore Doll Gale.
Asked how many Darien residents he thinks will vote this time around, Hodge said, “Not enough,” then “Not very many. We’ll probably have 500.”
As he watched over the fall festival-related antique car show on Saturday, Bill Roesler, a 79-year-old retiree who was born in Cleveland, Georgia, raised in Ft. Lauderdale and moved to Darien in 2003, said he’s voting for the incumbent.
“He’s been pretty good from what I can hear and from what I understand from the rest of the [Darien] residents that I’ve talked to.”
On the other hand, Mabry, who was born just outside Darien then moved to the Bronx where she lived for 50 years before returning here in 1996, said she’s voting for the challenger.
“I feel maybe that we need to change,” she said. “I’m gonna give him a vote to see if he could bring about some of the changes that we need here.”
As she considered the question “Which Bubba?” one visitor to the town’s fall festival was simply relieved.
“I don’t have to choose between the two Bubbas,” explained Rita Valentine, who has lived full-time in Coastal Georgia since 2029,
“I live in McIntosh County, outside the Darien town limits,” and therefore isn’t eligible to vote for mayor.
Still, when it was pointed out to her that there will probably be no place in America where there are two Bubbas on the ballot vying for the same office on Tuesday, she said she wasn’t so sure.
“In the Deep South, actually, we might not be the only one. Here, we’re just lucky there aren’t three.”