On Thursday, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee handed his gavel to state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, in order to pull a surprise:
The reintroduction – and ultimate committee passage – of a hate crime bill that would add penalties to criminal acts motivated by a victim's religion, race, national origin, homeless status, sexual orientation, or gender. The bill now goes to the House Rules Committee. Catch the video here.
Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican, is retiring after this session. He noted that he had supported a similar bill, HB 660, authored by state Rep. Meagan Hanson, R-Brookhaven, which never made it out of a subcommittee. Georgia is one of only five states without hate crime legislation.
The vehicle used was SB 373, a bill originally intended to give Cobb County an additional superior court judge – but shelved when it was discovered that the clerk of court had miscounted the number of cases Cobb judges handle.
In his introduction of the new content for SB 373, Willard recounted his coming of age in the '60s as a young banker who, when downtown, often witnessed protests against segregation – and the counter-protesters in support of white supremacy.
"I look back, and feel some shame that I did not step out more at that time," he said. "While you're not totally ignoring it, you're not totally caught up and trying to correct the conduct of people."
Past versions of the bill have had the support of law enforcement, including the GBI. "It doesn't mean that you can't sit there and say something bad about somebody," Willard said. But criminal acts associated with the specific categories would be considered "a misdemeanor of a high or aggravated nature."
Those testifying for and against the measure had made their views known in other hearings. But the appearance by state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest-serving member of the Legislature and an African-American, was unusual. Smyre avoided specifics, but thanked Willard for his final effort.
The revival nearly foundered on two points.
The Anti-Defamation League initially withheld its support because the list of hate crime categories included "political views."
"This inclusion would perhaps unintentionally give protection under the hate crime law to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists," said Allison Goodman, the ADL's southern regional director. She argued that the inclusion would create constitutional concerns.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, acknowledged the inclusion of "sexual orientation" to the statute's list of triggers, but objected to the exclusion of "gender identity." Transgender persons are frequently the victims of violent assault, he said.
The committee attempted a word-by-word clawback. On Hanson's motion, the word "gender" was added to the list of triggers. State Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, then moved to have the word "identity" added. The committee voted him down.
The phrase "political views" was then removed, also on a motion by Hanson, then passed on a hand vote.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was in Smyrna on Thursday to meet with a gathering of Home Depot employees and to tout the GOP tax cuts passed last year. But he almost immediately was asked to address President Donald Trump's promise – fulfilled later that afternoon – to slap heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
"The best policy is to be surgical and specific and go after those specific unfair trade practices," said Ryan. "I'm not a fan of broad-based across-the-board tariffs, because you'll have a lot of unintended consequences."
Ryan and other Republicans in Washington, including U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., have tried to tailor their opposition – i.e., encourage Trump to narrow the list of countries that tariffs would be applied to – in order to appear less confrontational.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., may be going in the opposite direction, ramping up his language. This was an opening line from a statement issued Thursday afternoon, emphasis ours:
"Ultimately, trade wars do not solve the problems they are intended to address, but inevitably create more trouble," said Isakson. "This new tax on American consumers will have lasting consequences and will impede the pro-growth agenda we have pursued."
In Republican circles, calling something a "tax increase" is still powerful stuff.
Then there was Agriculture Sonny Perdue's advice to farmers who fear that their commodities becoming pawns in a trade war. From Iowa Radio: