Halftime in Georgia: A look back at Kemp’s first two years as governor

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta on Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

It was bill-wrangling season in the state legislature, and Gov. Brian Kemp was visiting Germany to talk economic ties when word came that the virus spreading from China into Europe could pose a serious threat for Georgia.

By early March, two people in the state had tested positive. Dozens more quickly followed, then the first death. The governor shut down the General Assembly’s legislative session, closed all the public schools and blanketed Georgia with shelter-in-place orders.

In the blink of an eye, the COVID-19 pandemic had swelled to dominate Kemp’s first two years in office as Georgia’s head of state.

“We just dealt with riding these waves as they’ve come over these last months,” Kemp said in a recent interview. “It’s been tiring and grueling, but it’s also just part of what you’ve got to do. … I’ve been working harder than I ever have in my whole life.”

Now halfway into his four-year term, Kemp has been forced to shoulder his administration’s initiatives alongside immense challenges, ranging from the devastation of COVID-19 to the passion of Black Lives Matter protests to a presidential election that has soured the governor’s most powerful ally against him.

Supporters have showered Kemp with praise, hailing the Republican for steering Georgia through storms of crisis and criticism with a captain’s grit. But his detractors see in Kemp a selfish leader concerned mostly with pleasing his own faction of voters in a divided political world – and who looks ready for a Democratic toppling in 2022.

“What is helpful for Governor Kemp is that he’s got about two years left in his term and a lot can change,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor. “The things that are top of mind for Georgia voters now might not be top of mind in two years.”

Gov. Brian Kemp calls for vulnerable residents to take precautions as coronavirus spreads in Georgia in March of 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp, a construction businessman from Athens and former state senator, won the 2018 race for governor while serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, a controversial position that drew accusations of voter suppression during his campaign against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.

Buoyed by a key endorsement from President Donald Trump, Kemp campaigned on promises to punish gang members, human traffickers and undocumented immigrants, pass pay raises for teachers and pursue policies meant to boost Georgia’s economy.

For the most part, Kemp and his supporters say he’s backed up those promises. The Republican-controlled General Assembly’s last two sessions have pushed through more money to police gangs, a big chunk of his promised $5,000 teacher raise, bills to fight trafficking, changes to the state’s Medicaid system and fewer year-end tests for schools.

Kemp also persuaded lawmakers to cut budgets for state agencies twice in the 2020 session: first in March to offset a predicted economic slowdown, then again in June by about 10% after COVID-19 throttled Georgia’s tax revenues.

The budget cuts, combined with the health impacts of COVID-19, hit Kemp with a one-two punch of unpopular decision-making that most governors never face, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia (UGA) political science professor.

“I don’t know if anybody’s had this kind of double whammy,” Bullock said in a recent interview. “It’s not always pleasant when you tell departments and agencies that you’re cutting back. And coronavirus has certainly had its challenges.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp are on hand U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks at the State Capitol for the first day of qualifying for the 2020 election on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp attracted huge criticism early in the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing a stay-at-home order later than other states, then by ending that order and moving to reopen businesses before other states – all while refusing to mandate that Georgians wear masks for guarding against the airborne virus.

The governor’s mantra to “protect lives and livelihoods” soured many people in Georgia who viewed his actions as more beneficial to businesses than the general public’s health, as did his lawsuit against Atlanta city officials to block them from imposing their own local mask mandate, said Alexis Scott, a former journalist and Democratic political commentator.

“Most people I know are not happy with his tenure,” Scott said in a recent interview. “Not just because of coronavirus, but primarily because of that.”

Then protests broke out over racial injustice during summer in Atlanta and across the country after the police killing of George Floyd, as well as resurfaced anger over the February 2020 slaying of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Kemp chastised the protesters for allowing violence and property destruction in their ranks, then readied the Georgia National Guard to respond.

Scott, who published Atlanta’s oldest Black newspaper for 17 years, charged Kemp with largely skirting issues that matter most for minority communities like social justice, creating the perception of a careless attitude that she thinks could bite him in an expected rematch with Abrams in the 2022 election.

“He wants to please his white constituents, so he doesn’t have anything to say about people of color because there are still more of them than us,” Scott said. “I think he’s trying to stay away from it because he knows it’s a hot iron. Everything that could hurt him is going to come back.”

Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state’s response to protests over police brutality and racial injustice at the State Operations Center in Atlanta on June 2, 2020. (Gov. Kemp’s official Facebook page)

But while opponents call him divisive, Kemp’s supporters see the governor as a person of character and conviction who has been forced to make unpopular decisions during unusually difficult times.

In particular, Kemp’s backers see his decision to let businesses stay open when other governors have kept their states shuttered as a wise move that spared Georgia from more crippling economic impacts seen elsewhere.

“He got the crap knocked out of him for stepping forward and reopening our economy before any other governor did,” said Brian Robinson, a top deputy for former Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican political commentator. “He made a decision, he stuck with it and he was right. And Georgia is better off for it.”

While Georgia’s unemployment rate is still high at 5.7%, revenues have climbed since summer with businesses allowed to stay open, and Kemp is now set for a legislative session where he likely will not have to ask for more budget cuts, Robinson said.

The same tendency to resist the sway of popular opinion has also helped Kemp weather assaults from his own party after the Nov. 3 presidential election, which Trump lost by fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia. Most recently, the president called on Kemp to resign for not stepping in to overturn the results, a move the governor dismissed as a “distraction”.

“You may disagree with his conclusions or his actions,” Robinson said of Kemp. “But he’s thoughtful. And once he makes a decision, by God, it’s carved in Stone Mountain. It’s not going to move.”

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with reporters outside Amazon’s new warehouse in Gwinnett County on Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp has tried to toe the line between shrugging off the president’s attacks and rallying Republican support for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whom the governor appointed late last year to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until a special election.

Loeffler fended off a challenge in November from outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who Kemp passed over for the appointment, to join fellow Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the Jan. 5 runoff elections against Democratic contenders Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock.

On the one hand, the fallout from Trump’s continuing attacks on a governor he once helped lift to victory has taken a toll on Kemp, who may struggle to patch up relations with loyal Trump voters in Georgia if he draws a Republican primary opponent in his bid for reelection in 2022, said UGA’s Bullock.

“What will be critical for his reelection will be to have a united Republican party,” Bullock said. “And that may be the biggest challenge over the next two years: to knit the party back.”

On the other hand, anger over Trump’s loss could weaken before voters cast ballots in 2022, leaving Kemp to run largely on how well he handles distributing COVID-19 vaccines over the next year as he seeks to overcome Democratic enthusiasm from the 2020 presidential election, which a Democratic candidate won for the first time since 1992, said Emory’s Gillespie.

“Partisanship is probably going to be a much bigger predictor of how Georgians vote [in 2022],” Gillespie said. “Everybody’s going to prepare for that margin to be razor-thin like it was this time, and Stacey Abrams is not a novice candidate. She is pretty battle-tested.”

For his part, Kemp says he’s not looking as far down the road as 2022 yet, though he did confirm that he will run for reelection. Top of the governor’s mind for now is to oversee delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. While vaccines began shipping out to Georgia hospitals and nursing homes in recent weeks, there are likely months to go before the general public will have access.

Beyond politics and posturing, Kemp said he’s just focused on preparing to manage the inevitable hiccups that will come from distributing the millions of vaccine doses needed for Georgia to finally end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Between now and herd immunity, our focus is going to be on the virus and on the economy and keeping people safe in Georgia,” Kemp said. “That is all I’m worried about right now.”

Flanked by state lawmakers, Gov. Brian Kemp signs Georgia’s hate-crimes bill into law on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp fills out roster of legislative floor leaders

Gov. Brian Kemp (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday named four returning members of the Georgia House of Representatives and three new state senators to his roster of floor leaders for the 2021-2022 General Assembly term.

Republican Reps. Bert Reeves of Marietta, Jodi Lott of Evans, Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas and Josh Bonner of Fayetteville will serve as the GOP governor’s House floor leaders.

Lott, LaRiccia and Reeves were all elected to the House in 2014, while Bonner was elected in 2016.

Kemp’s three Senate floor leaders – Republicans Clint Dixon of Buford, Russ Goodman of Homerville and Bo Hatchett of Cornelia – were all elected in November.

Goodman will succeed Sen. Ellis Black of Valdosta, who opted not to run for another term in the Senate this year. Dixon and Hatchett will succeed Sens. Renee Unterman of Buford and John Wilkinson of Toccoa, respectively, both of whom left the legislature in unsuccessful bids for Congress.

Floor leaders sponsor bills introduced into the General Assembly on behalf of the governor and shepherd them through the committee process and onto the floor of their respective legislative chambers.

Kemp noted previous floor leaders have carried dozens of his health-care bills through the General Assembly as well as legislation targeting human trafficking and criminal street gangs.

“Our partnership with the General Assembly has been critical in the fight against COVID-19 as we have worked every day to protect lives and livelihoods,” Kemp said in a statement. “I am confident these outstanding legislators will carry that important work forward, and I appreciate their commitment to the people of Georgia.”

Federal unemployment benefits to jobless Georgians to continue

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Eligible Georgians will continue to receive the $300 weekly unemployment checks Congress approved last week without a lapse, even though President Donald Trump signed the bill a day after the program’s Dec. 26 expiration date.

Claimants who were still receiving the payments as of the week ending the day after Christmas will get a check next week without any interruption in unemployment benefits, the Georgia Department of Labor announced Thursday.

The newly reauthorized federal benefits also will go to claimants receiving at least $1 in weekly state unemployment benefits, beginning with the week ending Jan. 2.

The labor department is reviewing guidelines from the U.S. Department of Labor before distributing payments to claimants who exhausted their benefits on or before Dec. 26. 

“Our teams will work through the holiday weekend to make sure we can issue payments next week for all claimants who are eligible for the extension with funds still available in their claim, including issuance of the new $300 [federal] supplemental payment,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said.

“We are continuing to work with the [U.S. labor department] on the specific operational guidelines to set up payments for all claimants eligible for the extensions, but some of these guidelines include complicated regulations that require extensive system programming.”

The state Department of Labor encourages Georgia claimants to continue requesting weekly payments. The agency will work to release all eligible payments as quickly as possible after operational specifics are received and implemented. 

While additional $2,000 economic stimulus checks for Americans supported by Trump and congressional Democrats remain stuck in the U.S. Senate, Congress did pass a $900 billion stimulus package back on Dec. 21. The package includes an extension of the $300 weekly unemployment checks that would have expired otherwise.

Meanwhile, first-time unemployment claims in Georgia fell by 7,713 last week to 18,960.

Since the coronavirus pandemic first took hold in Georgia last March, the labor department has paid out more than $16.7 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits to more than 4.2 million Georgians, more than the last nine years combined.

The job sector accounting for the most initial unemployment claims last week was accommodations and food services with 5,495 claims. The manufacturing job sector was next with 2,057, followed by administrative and support services with 1,968.

More than 164,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access.  The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs. 

New year brings new laws to Georgia

ATLANTA – Legislation the General Assembly passed this year covering a wide range of subjects from health care to law enforcement to Georgia’s foster care system will take effect with the new year.

Here is a summary of key bills that will take effect Jan. 1:

  • House Bill 888 takes aim at the practice of “surprise billing” by requiring health insurance companies to cover emergency services a patient receives whether or not the provider is a participant in the patient’s insurance network, leaving it to providers and insurers to settle their differences through arbitration.
  • House Bill 911 prohibits foster parents from engaging in improper sexual behavior with children in their care, closing a loophole in current state law. The measure was part of Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp’s initiative to better protect foster children.
  • House Bill 838 is aimed at protecting police and other first responders from bias-motivated crimes committed because of the victims’ “actual or perceived employment as a first responder.” Legislative Republicans pushed the bill as a companion measure to passage of the state’s first hate crimes law.
  • House Bill 1037 puts the state’s popular film tax credit under additional scrutiny by requiring all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Georgia Department of Revenue or third-party auditors. It also tightens rules governing how film companies transfer or sell unused tax credits to other businesses.
  • House Bill 244 assigns the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) the task of deciding how much the state’s electric membership cooperatives can charge telecommunications providers for broadband attachments to their utility poles, a bid to promote the expansion of rural broadband service. The new rates set by the PSC will take effect July 1.
  • Senate Bill 426 requires manufacturers that use the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide to report any waste spills or gas releases to the state within 24 hours. The director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division then must post the information on the agency’s website.

COVID-19 vaccines headed for Georgians 65-years and up, first responders

Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) receives the COVID-19 vaccine as Gov. Brian Kemp (left) watches on Dec. 17, 2020. (Kemp Twitter photo)

COVID-19 vaccines are set to roll out for Georgians ages 65-years and older, police officers and firefighters in the coming weeks as hospitals, health clinics and nursing homes continue divvying up a limited supply of early doses, Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday.

The expansion comes as vaccine providers administer shots more quickly in rural parts of Georgia than in metro areas, giving some places capacity to offer vaccines for vulnerable people besides just health-care workers and nursing home residents, said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

Officials are now aiming to open drive-thru clinics in metro Atlanta sometime next week to administer vaccines by the thousands of doses for health-care workers at a given location, rather than the lesser amounts seen at local provider clinics where storing vaccines at cold temperatures is challenging.

Nearly 62,000 vaccine doses had been administered in Georgia as of late Wednesday afternoon, according to state Department of Public Health data, which tends to lag by a day or two. Around 432,000 doses had been shipped and more than 1,000 providers are on hand to administer them.

“We will use every available resource to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible [and] to be part of the existing logistical infrastructure that we have,” Kemp said at a news conference Thursday.

The ability of some rural areas to vaccinate local health-care workers has recently left doses “sitting in freezers” while hundreds of health-care workers in more urban parts of the state are still on waiting lists for the tightly limited supply of vaccines currently available, Toomey said.

“That is unacceptable,” Toomey said. “We have lives to save. … It really made sense for us to move into this additional category for such vulnerable persons.”

The governor said it’s likely more efficient for providers in rural areas to use all their vaccines rather than send surplus doses to metro areas since fresh shipments would have already arrived by then. He said state officials are constantly tweaking distribution plans amid uncertainty over how many vaccines Georgia will get in the early stages of the nationwide rollout.

Meanwhile, Georgia heads into the New Year’s holiday with positive cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 continuing to spike. The state has been averaging around 5,000 new positive cases daily in recent days after logging a high of nearly 8,000 cases on Christmas Eve.

Kemp urged Georgians to avoid gathering in large groups for New Year’s Eve celebrations and for young people to quarantine themselves from more vulnerable family members for a couple weeks if they plan on attending any parties.

“The virus is still here and presents as big a threat as ever,” Kemp said. “We need all Georgians to continue to act responsibly in the best interest of their loved ones and fellow citizens to limit the spread over the holiday weekend.”

More than 550,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. As of Wednesday, the virus had killed 9,808 Georgians.