Kemp’s Senate pick sparks rift in lieutenant governor’s office

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s decision to stand beside Gov. Brian Kemp as he unveiled Kelly Loeffler as his pick for a U.S. Senate seat triggered the abrupt resignation of his top aide, according to senior GOP officials.

Chip Lake, a veteran operative who helped engineer Duncan’s 2018 election, announced his resignation on social media four hours after Kemp unveiled Loeffler as his pick for the coveted seat.

Lake would not comment publicly about why he left the post as Duncan was preparing for his second legislative session, which starts Jan. 13.

But an official who requested anonymity to describe confidential discussions said Lake felt “handcuffed” by an impulsive lieutenant governor who frequently took strategic advice from a “life coach.”

In a statement, Duncan did not dispute that he sought counsel from someone outside his official staff to help hash out his decision. He said he’s found “enormous success in building consensus and seeking counsel from people I trust with many different perspectives.”

“When I say policy over politics, I mean it, and in this particular case I took the time needed and consulted those I respected to get it right,” he said. “If that cost me some political points, so be it.”

Senate split

The fallout offers a window into the tension over Kemp's appointment of Loeffler, a finance executive unknown to many Georgia Republican leaders.

Some activists pushed Kemp to tap U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to the seat instead, and many remain uncommitted as he weighs a potential challenge against her in November's special election.

Duncan’s office declined to comment on the personnel matter. But Republican officials said the relationship between the lieutenant governor and his top strategist had grown strained for months, before snapping with Duncan’s decision to support Loeffler at the Dec. 4 press conference.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (right) shakes Gov. Brian Kemp’s hand after introducing him during a press conference at the State Capitol Nov. 4, 2019. Gov. Kemp announced a proposed limited expansion of Medicaid in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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The governor and his staff worked the phones before Loeffler's unveiling, intent on packing his office with prominent Republicans to turn the announcement into a show of support for Loeffler. The absence of Duncan, the president of the Senate and one of Kemp's top allies, would have been glaring.

The lieutenant governor initially did not commit to appear with Kemp at the event, but he changed his mind after a meeting with the outside adviser.

Duncan said he also met with Kemp and learned more about Loeffler's "conservative credentials and inspiring story" before he showed up at the governor's side for her debut.

‘Turnover is expected’

Lake said in a statement it was the "honor of a lifetime" to serve as Duncan's chief of staff and that he has no plans to work for Collins, who he has advised in past House campaigns, if he runs for Senate.  

He’s one of two senior Duncan officials to announce their departures this month.

Loree Anne Paradise said Wednesday that she was leaving her job as Duncan’s communications director to join a private legal practice. She said after recently earning a license to practice law in Georgia that it was “the best time for both myself and my family to begin my legal career.”

Duncan’s new top aide, John Porter, is an attorney and operative who served as one of his deputies. He said in a statement that “turnover is expected” in state government and that other advisers, including policy director Mike Dudgeon and general counsel Regina Quick, remain on his staff.

Amid his crowded office, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that business woman Kelly Loeffler will replace U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in Washington.

Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

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Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

“With the vast majority of the team that helped the lieutenant governor usher through meaningful healthcare reforms, strengthen protections for sexual harassment victims in the workplace and pass the heartbeat bill remaining intact, our office is more prepared than ever for the upcoming session,” Porter said.

Several Republican senators who requested anonymity expressed concerns that Lake’s retirement could hobble the lieutenant governor’s office at a pivotal time. Others said they were confident in Duncan and his operation.

State Sen. John Kennedy, one of the top Republicans in the chamber, said “without a doubt the relationships and trust with the lieutenant governor’s office is stronger than ever.”

“I’m confident that when we close the book on the 2020 session, we’ll reflect back on a Republican caucus, Senate leadership and lieutenant governor that worked hand in hand to pass significant legislation.”