08/06/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- United States Senator David Perdue (R-GA) speaks with media following a talk at the Kiwanis Atlanta Club luncheon meeting at the Loudermilk Conference Center in downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, August 6, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

David Perdue and his bipartisan bill -- it’s about school safety, not guns

Next year, U.S. Sen. David Perdue would like to do what his GOP colleague Johnny Isakson did in 2016 – out-perform Donald Trump among Georgia voters.

Isakson, whose congenial approach has always made his conservatism more digestible, won nearly 55% of all ballots cast in his re-election bid. The more caustic Trump scored 51% of the Georgia vote.

With an uncertain election year looming, public attitude toward impeachment of the president shifting, and the chances of an economic downturn hovering at 50-50 in Georgia, that hometown margin is something well worth preserving.

To do that, to win re-election in 2020, Perdue will need the help of suburban, college-educated women – particularly those living in north metro Atlanta. The same women who fled the Georgia GOP in the 2018 mid-terms and today remain hardcore skeptics of President Trump.

Perdue’s task is complicated by his close association with the White House, particularly on the president’s trade war with China. But if you watch him closely, you will see that Perdue is reorienting himself in some very specific ways.

He has offered Gov. Brian Kemp some advice on who should be appointed to replace Isakson, who retires on Dec. 31. “Georgia is a growing state and the Republican party needs to broaden with it. And that’s been my mantra since the very beginning,” Perdue said last week. The remark could be interpreted as favoring state House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones of Milton, who has applied for the job – along with 500 others.

Then there’s the fact that Georgia’s soon-to-be-senior senator now speaks kindly of Michelle Nunn, his 2014 Democratic opponent. “She’s got a good heart and a great mind, a great family. I revere her father, Sam Nunn. I mean, he’s an icon,” Perdue said.

But more important than any of this is the School Safety Clearinghouse Act, a bill that Perdue has co-sponsored with U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat from Alabama who also faces voters next year. It was introduced in early September – following an August riven by a trio of gun massacres, two in Texas and one in Dayton, Ohio, that collectively took dozens of lives.

Gun violence threatens to become a permanent barrier between Republicans and suburban women – particularly as it applies to schools.

Perdue is drilling down on a small piece of that issue during the current recess.

The Perdue/Jones bill would create a repository for “best practices” aimed at reducing a school’s vulnerability to mass violence, assembled and maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The clearinghouse would assemble recommendations from engineers, architects, first responders, and building security experts – but would impose no mandates on local school districts.

Certainly, it would fit a need. One of the more understated opening lines from the text of the bill: “According to the American Institute of Architects, most of the 132,853 public and private elementary and secondary schools in the United States are not designed to deter… violent acts.”

In a recent op-ed for the Journal-Constitution, Perdue pointed to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1994, and how it prompted changes to government architecture across the country.

So let us be clear. This is decent legislation that deserves passage. But the measure also fills – or attempts to fill – some very specific political needs.

For Jones, the Alabama Democrat, it offers inoculation. When his GOP challengers denounce him as a “socialist” next year, Jones can now point to his Georgia colleague as a fellow traveler.

For Perdue, the advantage is two-fold. If your 2020 target is the swing voter in Georgia, then a display of bipartisanship never hurts – particularly among women, whom some researchers have found to prefer more collaborative candidates.

The School Safety Clearinghouse Act also allows a GOP-controlled Senate to point to an accomplishment in the way of gun violence – without triggering a paralyzing reaction from the National Rifle Association. The legislation doesn’t touch the issue of high-velocity, high-capacity firearm proliferation in this country.

“We know we’ve got to do some things on guns, in terms of background checks and so forth, to keep guns out of the hands of people that should not have them, but this is a great first step,” Perdue told a reporter.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has held up a House bill, passed in February, that would extend background checks to more gun purchases.

Perdue’s bill may help deflect some attention, but Democrats have already declared gun violence a top 2020 issue. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi showed up at the offices of the AJC last week, she was wearing a bracelet made, in part, from a brass bullet casing. An anti-gun violence activist in Florida had made it for her.

She wants a Senate vote on extended background checks before November 2020. “We’re not going away. We’re going to be persistent. And we’re not going away,” she said. “It’s not enough to just say we’re going to take it up in an election. We’re at it every single day.”

There is yet another wrinkle to the Perdue/Jones bill. Jones was elected in 2017 to fill the Senate seat of Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, whom Trump had appointed as U.S. attorney general. Jones’ chief political strategist was and remains Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic veteran.

Trippi is also the strategic consultant for Teresa Tomlinson, one of several Democratic candidates seeking Perdue’s seat. I wondered if this would inhibit Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, when it came to the topic of gun violence, or the Perdue/Jones bill. It didn’t.

“Anytime you’re running for re-election as an incumbent, you always look for ways to be cast as bipartisan,” Tomlinson said. “And no one in America is against safe schools.

“But I don’t think it’s the end all, be all answer to the gun violence epidemic we’ve got here,” she said.

Tomlinson emphasized that she favors “red flag” legislation that would allow police, family and friends of gun owners to petition the court to have weapons temporarily seized – if the gun owner is a danger to himself or others. Perdue has expressed qualms about such a measure — as well as other restrictions proposed by both Democrats and some Republicans.

Tomlinson would also support a ban on the sale of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. A query to Perdue’s office for the senator's positions on those topics was unsuccessful.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.