Kemp draws 2022 primary challenge in former Democrat Jones

Vernon Jones (at podium) speaks with supporters of then-President Donald Trump at a rally in Buckhead on Nov. 6, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Vernon Jones, a former Democratic state lawmaker and one of former President Donald Trump’s most vocal allies in Georgia, is the latest Republican to open a 2022 primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp.

A controversial figure, Jones served as DeKalb County CEO from 2001 to 2009 between terms in the state House of Representatives. He did not seek reelection last year after trumpeting support for Trump and drawing backlash from Georgia’s Democratic party, which he left to become a Republican.

He announced his gubernatorial campaign in a news conference Friday outside the state Capitol building in Atlanta.

Jones’ candidacy marks a test for backers of the former president who lobbed claims of election fraud in the 2020 cycle, as well as for Kemp, who faced attacks from Trump and hardline conservatives for not moving to overturn the state’s election results that saw President Joe Biden by a narrow margin.

Kemp has sought to rebuild support among Georgia Republican voters by defending changes to mail-in and early voting laws that he signed last month, calling them necessary to bolster election integrity. Democrats and voting-rights advocates have slammed the changes as attempts at voter suppression.

Jones is the second Republican to open a primary challenge against Kemp after Appling County educator Kandiss Taylor launched her bid in February. He could face a slew of other primary contenders before likely battling his 2018 Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams in a rematch for governor.

Georgia’s candidate field for 2022 is taking shape early with several high-profile announcements in recent weeks, including Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan’s run for state attorney general against the Republican incumbent, Chris Carr.

Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Greensboro has also launched a primary challenge against Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, as has former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn two Republican challengers in his bid to hold the seat he won in historic fashion during the 2020 election cycle.

Republicans Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and U.S. Navy SEAL veteran, and Kelvin King, an Atlanta small-business owner in construction and U.S. Air Force veteran, announced their candidacies this week.

Democrats in Georgia are pushing to continue building momentum amid changing suburban demographics and strong grassroots efforts that saw the party win the state’s presidential election and the two Senate seats in the 2020 cycle.

Republicans are angling to lock in their current statewide seats and reverse 2020 losses such as Warnock’s seat and suburban Atlanta congressional districts that flipped for Democrats in recent years but could swing back to Republicans after redistricting this fall.

Republicans will be in charge of the redistricting process because they control both chambers in the General Assembly.

Also up for grabs statewide in 2022 will be Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s seat, though his office recently signaled he may not seek a second term. Contenders are likewise lining up to run for Georgia labor and insurance commissioners.

The upcoming primary elections are set for May 24, 2022, and the general elections set for Nov. 8, 2022.

Unemployment claims rising in Georgia, contrary to national trend

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims in Georgia rose last week even as initial claims nationwide fell dramatically.

However, longer-term figures on unemployment reported Thursday by the state Department of Labor weren’t nearly so dismal.

Jobless Georgians filed 38,382 first-time unemployment claims last week, up 4,759 from the week before.

That contrasted sharply with a nationwide drop in claims of 193,000 during the week. Initial unemployment claims for the U.S. stood at 576,000 as of April 10, the lowest since mid-March of last year when the nation’s economy first began feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s numbers for the month of March gave more reason for optimism. The state’s unemployment rate declined by 0.3% last month to 4.5%.

“March is yet another month where we have seen job growth throughout the state,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said. “Georgia has gained a vast majority of the jobs that were lost since March of last year, and we continue to remain strong in economic growth and business development.”

Jobs in Georgia increased by 21,800 last month, reaching a total of nearly 4.5 million. But that’s down 151,000 compared to March of last year.

The job sectors experiencing the most month-over-month job gains were administration and support services with an increase of 3,500 jobs. Next was health care, which added 2,400 jobs in March, followed by local government with 1,800.

Notably absent from the list was the accommodation and food services job sector, which week after week and month after month has led the way in job losses in Georgia leading to the filing of unemployment claims.

Last week, 11,906 Georgians previously working in that sector of the economy filed initial unemployment claims, far ahead of the administrative and support services sector, which accounted for 4,043 claims. Manufacturing was next with 3,160 claims.

The labor department has paid out nearly $20.6 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic. The agency has processed more than 4.6 million initial unemployment claims during that time, more than during the last nine years combined before COVID-19 struck.

More than 223,000 job openings are currently listed on the EmployGeorgia website, triple the number that were listed in March 2020.

Warnock draws early 2022 election challengers for U.S. Senate

Rev. Raphael Warnock (front) campaigns with Stacey Abrams (back) on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has drawn the first Republican challengers in his bid to hold the seat he won in historic fashion during the 2020 election cycle.

Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and U.S. Navy SEAL veteran, opened his candidacy in an announcement highlighting his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and tenure as a National Security Council official in former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Saddler’s candidacy comes after Kelvin King, an Atlanta small-business owner in construction and U.S. Air Force veteran, jumpstarted his campaign earlier this week. A Black man, King aims to unseat Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator in Warnock.

Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, rocketed to national prominence along with fellow Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff after winning runoffs Jan. 5 to hand Democrats control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

It marked the first time Democrats have held both Senate seats in Georgia since 2002.

Their races against former Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue attracted record-setting campaign donations and put Georgia on the political map as a battleground state for years to come.

Unlike Ossoff, Warnock will need to win election in 2022 for a full six-year term after claiming victory in the recent runoff to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term.

Warnock’s 2020 campaign focused on boosting health care for Georgians via Medicaid expansion and protecting voter rights, both issues the freshman senator will likely lean on during his 2022 reelection bid.

Election laws should also feature prominently in the race after Republican state lawmakers overhauled Georgia’s mail-in and early voting rules, sparking controversy in the legislative session that ended late last month.

Georgia’s candidate field for 2022 is taking shape early with several high-profile announcements in recent weeks, including Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan’s run for state attorney general against the Republican incumbent, Chris Carr.

Republican U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Greensboro has also launched a primary challenge against Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, as has former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle.

Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s top Republican, has drawn a primary challenger in Appling County educator Kandiss Taylor. He could face a slew of other primary contenders before likely battling his 2018 Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams in a rematch for governor.

Democrats in Georgia are pushing to continue building momentum amid changing suburban demographics and strong grassroots efforts that saw the party win the state’s presidential election and the two Senate seats in the 2020 cycle.

Republicans are angling to lock in their current statewide seats and reverse 2020 losses such as Warnock’s seat and suburban Atlanta congressional districts that flipped for Democrats in recent years but could swing back to Republicans after redistricting this fall. Republicans will be in charge of the redistricting process because they control both chambers in the General Assembly.

Also up for grabs statewide in 2022 will be Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s seat, though his office recently signaled he may not seek a second term. Contenders are likewise lining up to run for Georgia labor and insurance commissioners.

The upcoming primary elections are set for May 24, 2022, and the general elections set for Nov. 8, 2022.

Port of Savannah sets another monthly record despite pandemic

Port of Savannah

ATLANTA – The Port of Savannah set an all-time record last month, handling nearly 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containerized cargo.

That represented an increase of 48% over March of last year, when the coronavirus pandemic was starting to slow the movement of freight.

The March showing put the port at 3.9 million TEUs for the first three quarters of fiscal 2021, putting Savannah on track to top 5 million for the first time ever in a single fiscal year.

“The port and the entire logistics community continue to serve as an economic engine for coastal Georgia and the entire state as we accelerate our economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday. “This record-setting month proves that Georgia is open for business!”

“Last month’s performance constitutes a massive turnaround from the same period a year ago,” added Will McKnight, chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority board.

“The board’s decision to invest more than $100 million per year over the next three years will not only make Savannah better able to handle this new level of trade, but to take on additional business as our customers grow.”

Rail played a major role in Savannah’s growth, with volumes at the port’s Mason Mega Rail Terminal increasing by 29.7% in March. Only half of the project’s 18 tracks are operational, with the rest scheduled to open later this year.

Another freight rail project, the Appalachian Regional Port near Chatsworth, saw an increase of 37.7% in lifts last month, moving an additional 761 containers compared to March 2020.

Meanwhile, the authority plans to break ground in September on the first phase of a project that will add 650,000 TEUs of capacity at Savannah’s Garden City Terminal. A separate project adding 750,000 TEUs of space is due for completion in 2023.

Former university system Chancellor Hank Huckaby dies at 79

Hank Huckaby (Credit: Gwinnett Daily Post)

ATLANTA – Former University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby died Wednesday at age 79 after suffering a stroke last week.

Huckaby served a brief stint in the state House of Representatives representing a Watkinsville-based district and before that spent years as an administrator at the University of Georgia.

He was named chancellor of the university system in 2011 and served in that role until retiring in early 2017.

“He was a true gentleman and a pillar of the Athens and Oconee County community,” Gov. Brian Kemp said.  “Hank left Georgia better than he found it, and for that, we are forever grateful. We will continue to lift the Huckaby family up in our prayers in the coming days.”

“Hank was devoted to this state and served it in many capacities,” added current system Chancellor Steve Wrigley, who succeeded Huckaby. “He always kept the people of this state first in his work.

“His last role as chancellor was exemplary both in our state and nationally, putting Georgia on a path to be a top public higher education system in the nation. I learned a great deal from him through the years, and I shall miss him greatly.”

Huckaby’s signature accomplishment as chancellor was launching a consolidation initiative that shrank the number of colleges and universities in the system over several years from 35 to 26. The move was aimed both at cutting costs and improving the quality of education.

Huckaby also presided over strong enrollment growth, helping spur an increase in the number of graduates.

Early in his career, Huckaby taught at Emory University and Georgia Perimeter College. He went on to serve as an administrator at Georgia State University, Gordon College, and UGA, where he rose to senior vice president for finance and administration.

Huckaby also served in the administrations of three Georgia governors. He was budget director under Zell Miller, executive director of the Georgia Housing and Finance Authority under Joe Frank Harris and commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs under George Busbee.

Doug Hooker retiring from Atlanta Regional Commission leadership

ATLANTA – Doug Hooker, who has led the Atlanta Regional Commission for nearly a decade, will retire next March, the ARC announced Wednesday.

“It has been an honor and privilege to work alongside Doug Hooker for the past nine years,” ARC Chairman Kerry Armstrong said. “Doug has brought a depth and breadth to ARC that has served our region well with a myriad of accomplishments. His strategic leadership has continued to provide valuable counsel to the board and our staff.”

Hooker joined the 10-county regional planning agency as executive director in 2011. An engineer by trade, he spent two decades in metro Atlanta’s public and private sectors before coming to the ARC, including a stint as commissioner of public works for the city of Atlanta.

Hooker has carried out a broad range of duties at the ARC, including transportation planning, aging services, workforce development, water conservation, and homeland security.

“It has been the greatest accomplishment of my career to lead ARC through a transformative journey over these past nine years,” he said. “I am enormously proud of what we have accomplished together as an agency and as a regional force.”

Highlights of Hooker’s tenure at the ARC include helping to launch Aerotropolis Atlanta, a public-private partnership that works to improve the economic competitiveness of the area around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and his role in Learn4Life, a collaborative workforce readiness initiative aimed at improving education outcomes in metro Atlanta.

Armstrong said a search committee will be formed to look for a successor to Hooker in the coming months.