Kemp pushes anti-gang initiative in Georgia gov race

Republican Brian Kemp unveiled a "stop and dismantle" program Tuesday targeting gang activity, a new effort to emphasize crackdowns on crime and illegal immigration in his bid for Georgia governor.

Appearing with Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds, Kemp said he would create a statewide Gang Strike Team to help local authorities combat the crime and give the state Attorney General more power to prosecute gang members.

Kemp, Georgia's secretary of state, would also pour an unspecified amount of state funding into a database created in 2010 to track gang members and launch a public awareness campaign on the dangers of gang-related crime.

“We have a gang problem in Georgia. It’s a crisis. Every week there’s another violent crime, another drug bust, another drive-by shooting, another murder,” he said. “With hundreds of gangs in metro Atlanta and beyond, we need another approach to move the needle.”

Kemp is one of five leading Republicans in the May 22 primary to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, and polls show he’s in a tight race for a place in a likely runoff with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for the party’s nomination. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill, businessman Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams are gunning for the same spot.

A month ago, Kemp launched his first TV ad with a pledge to create a program to "track and immediately deport all criminal aliens" and toughen penalties on people in the country illegally. He said his anti-gang initiative could enhance the illegal immigration crackdown.

“We are going to be targeting criminals,” he said. “I’m not concerned with what demographic they come from.”

The proposal fits a familiar strategy for Kemp, who has echoed President Donald Trump's tough-talking initiatives since entering the race with a "Georgia First" platform a year ago. Trump made targeting MS-13 and other violent gangs a linchpin of his criminal justice policy.

Statistics on gang membership and gang-related crime aren't easily available. But a 2016 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution documented a rise in gang influence in everything from narcotics to identity theft.

In that story, the FBI's Atlanta Safe Streets Gang Task Force estimated that there were up to 20,000 gang members in metro Atlanta – a significant jump since 2000. Nationally, a 2008 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 5 percent of violent crime victims were assaulted by gang members.

Pressed on why he’s seizing on this issue, Kemp said he didn’t need detailed statistics to show him gang crime was on the rise. He cited news coverage of gang-related violence across the state, including in his hometown of Athens.

“When I’m reading about a shooting every other day, or every third day, in my hometown newspaper – for a parent that’s a crisis,” he said.

At Tuesday’s event, Kemp also picked up the endorsement from Reynolds, one of the more influential political figures in Cobb County.

The county has long been one of the biggest troves of votes in Republican primaries, but changing demographics have Republicans on the defensive. Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016, marking the first time it flipped blue since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

More: GOP hopefuls for Georgia governor make immigration a top issue