Loeffler condemns Black Lives Matter in campaign stop

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks during a campaign event at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters in Marietta on July 13, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

MARIETTA – U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., doubled down Monday on criticism of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, calling it a political organization promoting “violence and anti-Semitism” as she seeks to win her seat in a crowded Nov. 3 special election.

Loeffler, a Buckhead businesswoman, has sought to bat back criticism over her opposition to the Women’s National Basketball Association’s recent decision to adopt Black Lives Matter-related phrases on their uniforms. She has urged the league to scrap the plan.

“They are built on a Marxist foundation and the most socialist principles,” Loeffler, who co-owns the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, said of Black Lives Matter at Cobb County’s Republican headquarters Monday.

Loeffler emphasized a distinction between the movement as a political organization with fundraising abilities versus its statements on racial equality and police reform, which she said she supports.

“They want to defund the police, the military,” she added. “They want to empty the prisons. They want to destroy the nuclear family, they’re anti-Semitic and they want to spread violence across the country.”

The comments by Loeffler highlight a recent shift in focus on issues in the campaign for her Senate seat, amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality. They also echo President Donald Trump’s bend toward social and cultural subjects as he vies for a second term.

The race for Loeffler’s seat has drawn a field of 21 candidates in an open special election to fill the remainder of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Isakson retired at the end of last year, prompting Gov. Brian Kemp to tap Loeffler to hold the seat until the election.

Speaking as part of a two-week statewide campaign tour, Loeffler paired her comments on Black Lives Matter with condemnation of calls from largely Democratic elected officials to reduce or defund local law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

She framed criticism over her views as part a “cancel culture” social approach that Trump has also sought to evoke in his presidential campaign amid recent protests and pressure to remove Confederate monuments.

“We as Americans have every right to express our views without being canceled,” Loeffler said Monday.

Loeffler faces stiff competition from Democratic contenders and from within her own party in Georgia. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican, is campaigning hard for the seat, as is Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.

Collins, who has especially lobbed criticism at Loeffler, has dismissed her stance on Black Lives Matter as empty politics, drawing ties between her ownership of a WNBA team and the league’s support for Planned Parenthood.

“Now that she’s pretending to be a conservative to run for public office, she should explain her silence and divest herself of this team and her past progressive advocacy,” Collins said.

Warnock, who has amassed a hefty campaign war chest in recent months, has also taken aim at Loeffler while touting his support for the protest movement and its aims.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is an effort to give voice to the very real problem of injustice in our country,” Warnock said on Twitter recently. “While we urge peaceful demonstrations, the pain in the Black community is still real and demands to be heard, no matter how inconvenient that is for Kelly Loeffler.”

Judge strikes down Georgia abortion ban

A federal judge Monday blocked a Georgia law from taking effect that would ban most abortions after a heartbeat is detected, marking a pivotal decision in a case that has enflamed passions in the state for more than a year.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones approved a permanent injunction of the law sought by several pro-choice groups in June 2019 shortly after the General Assembly passed legislation to impose the restrictive abortion ban.

Jones’ ruling follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month that struck down a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana. Previously, Jones said he planned to await an outcome in that case before issuing his own order.

Jones handed down a single-paragraph ruling Monday that found the law to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal-protection clause.

Backers of the push to overturn Georgia’s abortion law hailed the court ruling Monday as a win for the right-to-choose movement, calling it a repudiation of governmental overreach in reproductive issues.

“This moves us further into the future we all want to live in,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of the nonprofit SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “No one deserves to live in a country where their bodies or their reproductive decision-making are dictated by the state.”

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office quickly pledged to appeal the ruling, potentially setting up a future U.S. Supreme Court battle.

“Georgia values life, and we will keep fighting for the rights of the unborn,” said Cody Hall, the governor’s press secretary.

Georgia’s law on abortions would have been among the most restrictive in the country had it been allowed to take effect at the start of this year.

It would have banned all abortions in the state before a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks. Certain exceptions would have been permitted such as for medical emergencies.

Legislation creating the abortion ban passed out of the General Assembly in March 2019 by partisan margins and following fierce debate on both sides of the aisle.

Several groups including SisterSong and Planned Parenthood filed suit after the bill’s passage, arguing it posed an unconstitutional violation of women’s reproductive rights set in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Georgia branch, which represented the suing groups, noted a separate federal court also struck down an abortion ban in Tennessee on Monday.

Hundreds of Georgia sex offenders off ankle monitors as lawmakers seek legal fix

A landmark court ruling has led to nearly half of Georgia’s most high-risk sex offenders being released from their ankle monitors over the past year, marking a legal quandary that state lawmakers fell short in addressing during the 2020 legislative session.

State officials tasked with recommending how to monitor sex offenders in Georgia say legislation filed in the 2020 session would address the problem going forward by handing final authority to judges, rather than a state-run review board.

But criminal defense attorneys argue the proposal does not include certain legal avenues for sex offenders who often lack the means to appeal their punishments and who would benefit from more focus on treatment than lifetime ankle monitoring.

So far, 520 of 1,108 people in Georgia classified as “sexually dangerous predators” most at risk for committing future sex crimes have been freed from GPS tracking devices, according to Tracy Alvord, executive director of the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board.

She expects 17 more sexually dangerous predators will be off ankle monitors by the end of this year, leaving local law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Community Supervision to rely more on reports from concerned citizens to monitor sex offenders in lieu of electronic tracking.

“There’s only so much you can do unless someone commits another crime,” Alvord said. “Now, they have less idea unless there’s a report that they’re engaging in some kind of disturbing behavior.”

Legislation brought by Rep. Steven Sainz, R-Woodbine, in the General Assembly session that wrapped up last month was aimed at revising state law on sex-offender sentencing that the Georgia Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in March 2019.

The high court ruled a longstanding practice of electronically monitoring some sex offenders in Georgia after their sentences and probation have been completed should not be allowed to continue, blocking a state law that requires automatic lifetime monitoring for sexually dangerous predators.

The issue centered on a process in which the review board decides how to classify a sex offender based on a risk scale, with the highest risk carrying automatic lifetime monitoring. Those highest-risk offenders mark a fraction of Georgia’s roughly 12,000 sex offenders, according to Alvord.

Sainz’s bill called for making the decision on lifetime monitoring part of a judge’s sentence from the start instead of via the review board. It would have only addressed future sex offenders, not those who have already been released from monitoring.

“My bill was a very tailored approach,” Sainz said. “It intentionally wasn’t a huge number [of offenders], but that number we’re dealing with per year would be the most needed offenders to have that tool long-term.”

House Bill 720 passed out of the state House of Representatives but stalled as lawmakers grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Sainz said he plans to work on the bill with Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, and bring it back for next year’s legislative session.

Critically, the bill proposes automatic lifetime-monitoring sentences for sex offenders who commit more than one felony sex crime such as rape, trafficking, child molestation and child pornography.

But automatic sentencing could prevent judges from imposing penalties on a case-by-case basis, potentially tying the hands of a judge who might opt for lifetime probation or more intensive treatment, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“It completely removes judicial discretion, which we believe is an important feature that should remain in the law,” Travis said. “Individual assessment is key, not just a blanket crime ‘A’ plus crime ‘B’ equals a lifetime monitoring.”

As it stands, Travis said the review board’s process for recommending sex-offender classifications leaves little room for appeal for offenders who often cannot afford legal representation. She said the state should put more resources into behavioral and psychological treatments aimed at curbing recidivism.

“That’s the best thing that should happen,” Travis said. “Strapping a monitor on them for life doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not going to commit another offense.”

But ankle monitors can help local police authorities prevent sex crimes by allowing them to easily determine if a GPS-tracked offender is going somewhere that is off limits like a school or has come into contact recently with people they shouldn’t, said the review board’s Alvord.

She said the intent is to stave off repeated sex crimes while also managing a constant stream of new cases. Each month, the review board receives a list of around 200 new sex offenders from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, Alvord said.

Establishing legally sound rules on ankle monitoring would help state and local authorities keep up with the heavy workload in the effort to protect Georgians from sexual predators, Alvord said.

“Our front-line people do a really, really good job despite the limitations we have legally,” Alvord said. “They’re really having to compensate on waiting for [Sainz’s bill] before it goes through.”

Atlanta imposes mask mandate, possibly defies governor

Coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A mandatory masking order is in effect in the city of Atlanta, requiring everyone inside Georgia’s capital city to wear masks in public and in businesses open to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order, which took effect late Wednesday, pits Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms against Gov. Brian Kemp, who opposes issuing a statewide mask mandate amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia.

The governor has not signaled whether he may take legal steps to overturn Atlanta’s mask order, given his own executive orders on COVID-19 require local governments to adopt the state’s health and safety rules, which do not so far include any guidelines on mandatory masking.

The Atlanta order also limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer in Atlanta, potentially impacting the ability for large protests against racial injustice and police brutality to continue as they have over the past several weeks.

It provides exceptions for those with medical conditions who may not be able to wear masks, as well as when people are eating, smoking, swimming in a pool or riding in a vehicle.

“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”

With the masking order in place, Atlanta joins a handful of other Georgia cities including Savannah and Athens that have recently issued requirements for facial coverings in public.

National and local health experts strongly agree the widespread use of masks will be essential to curbing the virus’ spread without a vaccine or cure.

Kemp has also urged voluntary mask wearing in Georgia via a statewide awareness tour and by launching a marketing campaign for reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

“To keep our friends and neighbors safe from COVID-19, we have to do our part,” the governor said Thursday on Twitter. “Mask up, Georgia!”

Kemp has, however, stopped short of requiring Georgians to wear masks, noting on several occasions that people in the state should not need a mask mandate “to do the right thing.”

Many local elected leaders have called on the governor to go a step further with masking rules – or at least allow city and county officials to set their own measures.

“We should not be sending the message to local governments that they don’t have the right or the space to take those steps on their own,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Other influential Georgia leaders have steered clear of the mask debate. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted he ordered state House lawmakers to wear masks during the legislative session last month but has no such say over local affairs.

“Whether local municipalities are able to compel mask wearing under the governor’s executive order isn’t my decision to make,” Ralston said Thursday. “Frankly, all that matters now is keeping people healthy and getting our economy growing again.”

The governor’s office has not responded this week when asked if Kemp is considering legal options to overrule the order.

On Twitter, Kemp’s communications director, Candice Broce, leveled criticism at aspects of the Atlanta order, highlighting that “there’s no exception for exercise, but there’s an exception for smoking.”

More than 100,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 since the highly contagious respiratory virus swept the state starting in March. Around 3,000 Georgians have died.

Positive cases have edged up in Georgia in recent weeks.

In a troubling trend, hospital admissions began climbing again this month in Albany, which was one of the state’s worst COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.

The Southwest Georgia city’s Phoebe Putney Health System noted Thursday that 37 patients have been admitted in the last eight days, approaching close to the total of 47 patients seen there throughout June.

“It is clear transmission of the virus is picking up throughout Georgia and much of the country,” said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive officer. “We are all anxious for our lives to return to normal, but to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, that normal must include wearing masks in public and limiting close contact with others.”

Atlanta mayor to order mask mandate, joining other Georgia cities

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signaled Wednesday she will place Georgia’s capital city under a mandatory mask order amid the COVID-19 pandemic, joining Athens and Savannah on a list of Georgia cities where masking is now required.

The Atlanta order comes in the face of continued opposition by Gov. Brian Kemp to issuing a statewide mandatory masking order, even as officials and health experts urge people to wear masks in public.

The new mask requirement in Atlanta also comes after Bottoms announced she and several of her family members had tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, though she has not experienced any symptoms.

Details about the order were not immediately available Wednesday. Bottoms said she would issue an order in an MSNBC interview Wednesday morning.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 104,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 2,922 Georgians.

City officials in Savannah, Athens, and the suburban Atlanta city of East Point have also issued mask-wearing requirements in recent days, as health experts warn positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have edged up in Georgia following the Memorial Day holiday in late May.

The decision by Bottoms puts Atlanta at odds with Kemp, whose own statewide executive orders on COVID-19 allow him to override any local mandates such as for masking.

Kemp’s office did not immediately respond when asked whether he may seek to overrule an Atlanta order.

Speaking on MSNBC, Bottoms said she had asked the governor to let Atlanta impose its own mask mandate but that “he refused.” She labeled state officials’ approach to loosening business and distancing restrictions in recent months as “very irresponsible.”

“The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our cities, specifically black and brown communities with higher death rates,” Bottoms said. “And we will never be able to reopen our schools and our economy if we don’t take some responsibility for what we can do as leaders to make sure that people aren’t exposed to this virus.”

The governor has held off on imposing a statewide mask requirement despite mounting pressure from many local officials and health experts to do so.

In remarks Tuesday to municipal and county government associations, Kemp called on local leaders to raise awareness over the importance of wearing masks and washing hands, rather than imposing any mandates.

“We don’t need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing,” Kemp said. “But we do need to build strong, public support.”

The governor has opted instead to tour the state in a bid to urge mask wearing and launched a marketing campaign this week encouraging reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

Bottoms announced Monday she had tested positive for COVID-19, marking the most high-profile public official in Georgia to contract the virus. She said she did not know where she might have been exposed but criticized the slow eight-day turnaround time for her test results.

“The fact that we can’t quickly get results back so that other people are not unintentionally exposed is the reason we are continuing in this spiral with COVID-19,” Bottoms said.

She noted Atlanta city hall has been closed since March but that she had recently been in close proximity to the city’s police chief, fire chief and other staff.

The mayor’s announcement also comes as she grapples not only with the city’s response to coronavirus but also a spate of violence centered around a burned-down Wendy’s that has been a focal point for recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The fatal shooting Saturday night of an eight-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, near the Wendy’s restaurant sparked swift condemnation from Bottoms and other officials including the governor.

Kemp has placed Georgia under a state of emergency through Monday (July 13) in response to Turner’s death and vandalism at the state Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta.

Atlanta authorities said Turner was shot and killed when a group of armed people opened fire on the car in which she was riding across the street from the Wendy’s, located south of downtown.

The Wendy’s was burned down amid protests shortly after the killing of Rayshard Brooks, 27, during an altercation with Atlanta police outside the restaurant in mid-June. Since then, the site has been frequented by armed persons who at times have barricaded the property, according to police.

Kemp launches campaign for COVID-19 safety awareness

One of the graphics available for businesses as part of the governor’s “Georgia Safety First” COVID-19 safety awareness campaign. (State of Georgia image)

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has launched a marketing campaign for Georgia businesses to show they are keeping up good social distancing, sanitizing and masking practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The voluntary campaign comes as Kemp and state health officials continue urging Georgians to wear masks in public, though the governor has steered clear of issuing any mandatory mask-wearing order.

Kemp has faced mounting pressure from health experts and many local officials to take more mandatory measures on masks after steadily loosening restrictions on businesses and social gatherings since May.

He was scheduled Tuesday for conference calls with President Donald Trump and governors to discuss the coronavirus response, as well as with local government officials, business owners and faith-based leaders to talk about Georgia’s health guidelines.

“As we continue to fight COVID-19, we want to ensure Georgia businesses and the public are abiding by public health guidance in order to keep Georgia healthy and open for business,” Kemp said in a statement.

Per the “Georgia Safety Promise” campaign, businesses can request signs and graphics to post on their premises or social media. The idea is to show a business’ commitment to washing hands, wearing masks, sanitizing surfaces and having patrons and employees keep six feet apart.

The aim is to spread awareness of the importance of following health guidelines in Georgia amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations following Memorial Day weekend.

“The promise to practice social distancing, to wear a face covering in public and to wash your hands is a small commitment that will have a powerful, positive impact on the future of our state,” said Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

The campaign’s purpose is also to inject more consumer confidence in businesses struggling to rebound from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“Businesses can think of the [campaign] as a complimentary marketing asset that will help communicate your commitment to your patrons’ health and well-being,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

“I hope every business in Georgia takes advantage of this opportunity and, in turn, sees a growth in sales and overall customer confidence,” Bremer said.