Federal student aid official resigns post to seek Georgia Senate seat

He plans to campaign on a plan to cancel much of nation’s student debt

A top official in the federal government’s trillion-dollar student financial aid agency said Thursday he would resign his post to seek Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment to a U.S. Senate seat with a plan to cancel much of the nation’s student debt.

A. Wayne Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he plans to apply for the seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson after serving as a deputy to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for the past two years.

“I intend to follow Senator Isakson’s example as a conservative Republican who is able to work across the aisle in Congress,” said Johnson, 67.

The Macon native is considered a long-shot to win Kemp’s favor, but he left open the possibility that he could run for the seat as a Republican if he’s not selected. His platform instantly made waves in higher education circles.

He told the AJC he would campaign on a plan that would wipe clean the more than $53 billion in student loans that Georgians owe to the federal government and compensate those who have already repaid their loans.

His proposal would provide students a $50,000 grant for their college education and other work training and licensing costs. People who have already paid their student loan debts would receive tax credits up to $50,000.

It would be financed by a 1% tax on revenue generated by all employers – including non-profit organizations. He called it “fair, fiscally responsible and future-oriented so that the citizens of Georgia and across America can afford a college education.”

Democratic contenders for top offices have embraced plans to reduce student debt for new students and the more controversial notion of wiping out existing loans. But few leading Republicans have backed those ideas.

"Wow even Republicans are now supporting #CancelStudentDebt policies," said Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Sen. David Perdue's seat, in response to Johnson's proposal. "We need this and debt free public colleges."

The idea will receive a tougher reception from Republicans, including Kemp, who campaigned on promises to oppose tax increases.

‘Fundamentally broken’

Johnson joins about 500 applicants seeking Kemp's appointment. The list includes current and former politicians, business executivesa U.S. ambassador,  decorated military veterans and radio commentators.

Kemp’s pick would stand for election in November 2020 to fill out the remaining two years of Isakson’s term – he’s stepping down for health reasons – and be expected to run again in 2022 when Kemp is seeking re-election.

The only Democrat in the race so far is Matt Lieberman, the son of the former U.S. senator, but several other high-profile officials are maneuvering to run.

Kemp has said he opened the process to the public to seek unconventional candidates, and Johnson was not likely to be on his radar before Thursday.

Johnson, meanwhile, said he was “optimistic” he would win Kemp’s favor, and has even set up a website to promote his bid. But he also hinted that he could run for the office if he’s not appointed.

“The fact that I resigned my position at the U.S. Department of Education in order to pursue this appointment and this objective should convey how serious I am about this,” he said.

Johnson built a career as a consultant with banking companies before starting a private student loan firm in 2013.  He was tapped by DeVos four years later to oversee the federal government’s $1.4 trillion portfolio of student loans.

He stepped down after about seven months to head a new strategy office within the federal aid agency, and he said his work paved the way to let students apply for loans and other aid on mobile devices.

Johnson told the AJC his background in the student aid industry gives him the credibility to overhaul a “fundamentally broken” system and that winning a U.S. Senate seat is the only way to realize his revamp.

“A college education is valuable to our citizens and it’s valuable to employers – but right now, only the students pay,” he said. “Employers say they need a better trained workforce. My plan sets forth an easy way to achieve that important goal.”