Brian Kemp didn’t look far when he tapped his new chief of staff.
Tim Fleming first worked for Kemp in 2002 during his successful bid for a state Senate seat, held a position for years in the Secretary of State’s Office and was campaign manager in last year’s victorious run for governor.
Now Fleming, 36, inherits one of the most challenging – and powerful – jobs in state government. He’s charged with supervising the governor’s most senior aides, marshaling his agenda, putting out countless political fires – all while keeping one eye on Kemp’s 2022 re-election bid.
It’s an exhausting role – some governors burn through several top aides in their first term – and often an unpopular one. Chris Riley, who was Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff for eight years, was known for making uncomfortable decisions.
And Fleming, in an interview before Kemp took office, said he was ready for the pitfalls that come with his new gig.
“I’ve had that role for many years. That comes along with the territory,” he said. “There’s the good and the bad and the ugly for any leadership role. You make tough decisions, but it’s your job to make sure it gets done – and to move in the right direction.”
Fleming comes from a family accustomed to the political glare. His grandfather was a Pierce County Commission chairman. His father was a Newton County Commission chairman. Summers in Covington were spent planting campaign signs and knocking on doors with his dad.
It didn’t take long for Fleming to catch the fever. While a sophomore at the University of Georgia in 2002, Fleming met Kemp and volunteered for his upstart campaign for the state Senate. Two years later, he volunteered for Kemp’s re-election campaign and interned for him at the statehouse.
After Fleming graduated in 2005, Kemp turned to be the campaign manager for his biggest race yet: a bid for agriculture commissioner. Kemp fell about 40,000 votes short to Gary Black, who now holds that office, in the Republican runoff.
It wasn’t long before Fleming decided to seek office himself. He ran for an open Newton County Commission seat in 2008 and won by roughly 150 votes, becoming the youngest elected official in county history. In a nod to Kemp’s narrow victory in the governor’s race, he quipped: “I know what it’s like to win by a slim margin.”
In his first 60 days on the commission, amid a fiscal crunch, he and other lawmakers voted to substantially cut the budget and lay off employees. That was the start of a series of tough fiscal decisions, though at the end of his term a pharmaceutical giant’s decision to build a massive plant nearby heralded a turnaround.
“The whole time I was on the commission, we were plagued with budget cuts,” he said. “We were a booming county, but it caught up with us.”
Opting not to run for another term, Fleming instead reunited with his old boss. He was Kemp’s campaign manager for his successful 2010 bid for a full term as secretary of state, and then he served as chief of staff for two years. By 2013, he became Kemp’s deputy secretary and then managed his campaign for governor.
On the trail, Fleming was known as an efficient taskmaster, helping to oversee a campaign that grew from a small core of Kemp loyalists to a behemoth $22 million operation. Two days after the election – while ballots were still being tallied – Kemp made Fleming his first hire.
For a high-profile position, he has cut a singularly low profile. He has rarely been quoted in the press, and posts infrequently on social media since the election. A father of three who married his high school sweetheart, he and his wife still run a cleaning company in his hometown of Covington.
His task ahead could be all-consuming. Riley was a factor in virtually every major decision at the statehouse – and most minor ones. When he stepped out of his office during legislative sessions, he was often deluged by lawmakers or lobbyist who knew his support was crucial to their cause. He lived part time near the Capitol to be more accessible.
Fleming said he’s prepared for what could be a challenging first year in office. And he echoes a favorite Kemp mantra when asked about his philosophy for the job.
“It’s not about power,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing when no one’s looking.”
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