In this aerial image made from a video provided by WSB-TV, a large fire that caused an overpass on Interstate 85 to collapse burns in Atlanta, Thursday, March 30, 2017. Witnesses say troopers were telling cars to turn around on the bridge because they were concerned about its integrity. Minutes later, the bridge collapsed. (WSB-TV via AP)
Photo: WSB-TV/AP
Photo: WSB-TV/AP

A fiery Trump motto for 2020: ‘Remember the I-85 bridge’

Macon -- We may have just gotten a glimpse of how Donald Trump’s re-election campaign will try to restore his standing in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, without dredging up inconvenient thoughts of guns with 100-round magazines, rude Twitter messages or kids in cages at the border.

A slogan may even be in the works: “Remember the I-85 bridge fire.”

The annual August luncheon put on by the Georgia Chamber constitutes a massive one-day political migration to Middle Georgia. As if you had picked up the state Capitol in Atlanta and emptied its contents on the banks of the Ocmulgee River.

As such, many had expected that Tuesday’s featured appearance by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., would amount to a kickoff of his 2020 re-election bid. And indeed, it was that.

“We’re now experiencing the greatest economic turnaround that I can find in U.S. history,” Perdue said. (Yes, the qualifying phrasing was interesting.)

But the afternoon wasn’t just about a brewing U.S. Senate contest. The luncheon became an opportunity to rebrand President Trump’s record in Georgia on the most favorable of terms.

The tip-off was a late substitution when it came to the keynote speaker. Last Wednesday, that was to be U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, the former Texas governor. Two days later, Perry was out, replaced by Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The decision, we’re told, was made at the White House level.

Look at it this way: Had Perry been on the stage Tuesday, his topic probably would have been the Trump administration’s continued support for the construction of the two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in east Georgia, a project billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

One can make a strong case for nuclear energy and still think it a poor hill to die on in a hotly contested general election.

Enter Elaine Chao and one of Georgia’s legendary stories of bureaucratic competence.

On March 30, 2017, a 39-year-old homeless man set fire to an upholstered chair, which then ignited high-density polyethylene pipes the Georgia Department of Transportation had stored under an I-85 bridge near Piedmont Road.

As hypnotized viewers watched on local TV, a massive section of the bridge collapsed, severing a vital economic link between Atlanta’s central business district and its richest suburbs.

Commuters wallowed in deeper-than-usual misery, but the reconstruction effort became a riveting focus. GDOT offered a $3.1 million incentive to get the work done quickly. Road contractor C.W. Matthews worked 24 hours a day, and I-85 became passable again in a mere six weeks.

Now, you might remember that Gov. Nathan Deal and his underlings accepted much of the credit for this miracle. But it turns out that your memory is somewhat incomplete.

The real victory belonged to the Trump administration, then only months into its reign. Chao “jumped into the breach and removed all regulatory impediments, and immediately got things going for the reconstruction project here in Georgia,” said Perdue, who introduced the transportation secretary to Georgia’s political and economic elite.

Chao accepted the plaudits for the accomplishment in her boss’ name. “As President Trump loves to hear, ahead of schedule and below budget,” she noted.

The restoration of I-85 has all the makings of a viable campaign meme for Trump. The economy of suburbia along Ga. 400 and I-85 was saved — by someone who (under President George W. Bush as labor secretary) was also the first Asian-American woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet, as Senator Perdue pointed out.

And, why, yes, I-85 does lead into immigrant-heavy Gwinnett County.

In other words, the story of the burning bridge has everything you might like about Trump, and none of what you don’t.

Infrastructure and the economy were the theme of the day — inside and outside suburbia. “The (U.S.) Department of Transportation has made sure that historically neglected rural areas now get the proper consideration,” Chao said.

She cited one pot of federal money in which funding for rural projects had tripled. “I know that rural America is not looking for a handout,” Chao said. “All they’re looking for is a fair chance to compete and to not be discriminated against when federal funding is being given out. We are paying attention to rural America.”

As well she should, given that this is where Trump voters are concentrated.

Though he opened by pointing to a growing economy and a 50-year low in unemployment, it was also left to Perdue to acknowledge — to a business-oriented crowd — more worrisome aspects of the Trump economic picture.

The senator took solace in the president’s decision, made that morning, to delay tariffs on imported cellphones, laptops, toys and other goods until mid-December. Christmas may be focused on Bethlehem, but it’s made in China.

Even so, Perdue said the U.S. trade war with China won’t be solved “very quickly or very easily.”

The senator was confident of success. “But I’m also here to say, this could be a long-term process. I’m hopeful we’ll get some short-term equal access, the most important thing,” Perdue said.

In addition, Perdue spoke of a coming new phase in the Trump administration’s efforts to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. And he admitted the need for foreign workers, especially on Georgia farms.

“We need workers in America to maintain this level of growth,” the senator said. “In Georgia, with agriculture being over half of our economy, that’s a major success factor in Georgia and could be a limiter of growth if we don’t solve it.”

Perhaps because of the venue — plenty of Democrats were in the audience, though none of his challengers — Perdue avoided the harsh partisan language he has used in front of thoroughly GOP crowds.

“Today, the free enterprise system is under attack,” Perdue charged. And when he decried “socialism,” Perdue also employed a proper definition.

“We cannot sit by and watch the development of a central government-managed economy,” he said.

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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.