Georgia governor’s aide warns GOP candidates not to ruin bid for Amazon

Gov. Nathan Deal’s top aide urged the candidates in the crowded gubernatorial field to strike a cautious note next year with “religious liberty” proposals and other socially conservative legislation, warning that embracing contentious measures could imperil the state’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

“There are concerns about the rhetoric in a political campaign, about what’s being spoken,” said Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff.

As for Amazon and other firms eyeing the state, he said, “The message going forward is: ‘Don’t measure us on the what if. Measure us on the what was done.’”

His comments Monday came at a Politically Georgia discussion with former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Political Insider Jim Galloway at Manuel’s Tavern. They were in response to a pointed question about the long-running debate over “religious liberty” by state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver.

Deal defied fellow Republicans last year by vetoing the legislation amid threats of economic boycotts, saying it would have undermined Georgia’s reputation as a business-friendly and welcoming state. He was roundly criticized by GOP activists for the decision; one group even called for his “censure.”

All four of the leading Republican candidates for governor – Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, former state Sen. Hunter Hill and state Sen. Michael Williams – have pledged to sign the legislation. They contend it would help protect people of faith from government intrusion.

The two Democratic candidates for the office, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, have vowed to oppose any comeback attempt.

Riley said Deal’s office will “continue to work with those campaigns and ask them to remember when they speak, those headlines go as quick and far as the CEO’s desk.” Of corporate executives, he added: “If I told you they weren’t paying attention, I’d be fibbing.”

(Case in point: The governor’s office said a heat map of its livestream of Deal’s 2016 veto showed intense viewership in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.)

Later in the program, Riley made a veiled reference to an unnamed contender – we’re guessing it was Williams, who has taken some of the more provocative stances – when he talked about the volatile political atmosphere.

“One candidate is acting crazy,” he said. “He’s seriously out there on the edge.”

Georgia is making an all-out push for Amazon’s second headquarters, a $5 billion bonanza that could bring 50,000 high-paying jobs. City and state leaders see it as another “Olympic moment,” much like the hunt for the 1996 Games, and Atlanta is widely considered to be a leading contender for the development.

Riley confirmed the state has a “very aggressive offer on the table” he said, alluding to the collection of incentives that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed earlier said was likely the “most aggressive economic attraction package” in state history.

And he said state leaders have a calming answer to corporate chieftains at Amazon and other firms – he said four to eight major deals are in the works – who worry about culturally conservative legislation: “Look at what we’ve done – not at the what if.”

Still, he added, the return of the “religious liberty” measure – which has been at the center of more than four years of debate at the statehouse – isn’t the only controversial proposal he worries could ding the state’s reputation during next year's legislative session.

“I stay awake at night a lot,” he quipped.

Here are some other tidbits from the Politically Georgia subscriber event:

A homegrown candidate?

Franklin was careful not to endorse any candidate – she’s staying out of the race - and said she’s not too concerned about whether a white or black mayor is elected.

Instead she noted that “some people feel it’s time for homegrown folk” – candidates raised in the city of Atlanta.

In general, she cautioned, don’t make too much of talk of a sweeping new era at City Hall.

“When I was running, people said I was the last African-American mayor,” she said. “Some of these things are myths.”

Photo time

Galloway noted that John Eaves, a former Fulton County chair now running for mayor, tweeted a picture of him and Franklin smiling together about halfway through the event. That brought a glib response from the ex-mayor, who sometimes butted heads with her counterparts at the county.

“You know what’s so amazing about this? Most of these people gave me hell,” she said to laughter, without naming any specific candidates. “I don’t remember getting any love.”

A smooth takeoff

Among the dozens of audience members was former Hartsfield-Jackson airport chief Ben DeCosta, who stepped down shortly after Mayor Kasim Reed's election after 11 years as the airport's general manager.

His question to his former boss, though, had nothing to do with their sometimes-stormy relationship. He asked about turnout in the Nov. 7 election. (For the record, both Franklin and Riley expect it to be a low-turnout affair.)

Honest advice

Both Riley and Franklin had sharp advice for potential office-seekers.

Franklin said the winner of the mayor race will be the candidate who voters most trust. Honesty, she added, is the most important virtue in a citywide election.

And Riley said voters don’t want a bomb-thrower, they want someone who can be effective in office. “Campaign to govern - whether you’re elected as mayor or any other office,” he said.

The recipe for victory

Franklin said when she ran for mayor, her ideal voting bloc was African-American women who went to church. She joked that she suddenly improved her “scruffy” demeanor and incorporated her signature flower pins into her wardrobe.

In the mayoral race, she said, candidates are scrapping over three distinct blocs that could define the race: Voters older than 55 – both white and back -who will “vote no matter what;” the “very large and very active” LGBT community; and newcomers who decided “very consciously” to move to Atlanta.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.