DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond delivers the keynote address at a Stone Mountain Park marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Brian Kemp on Stone Mountain and history

Brian Kemp, he of the giant pick-up truck, on Wednesday launched his gubernatorial campaign’s “community inclusion” coalition:

There was Bruce LeVell, a Dunwoody jeweler and former co-chair of Donald Trump’s diversity coalition. And Dan Israel, one of the most prominent Jewish Republicans. And Rey Martinez, the Loganville mayor who is the first Latino ever to lead a Gwinnett County city.

Democrats will dismiss this as window dressing. But even if they’re right, it’s necessary window dressing. Kemp won the GOP primary upon a blessing from Trump. Tactically, in November, Kemp will need the support of women who are currently frowning at where the president is taking their party.

But an “inclusion” coalition is also necessary because our politics are already racially fraught – and have been. Democrat Stacey Abrams’ bid to become the nation’s first African-American woman governor has merely placed the issue in the middle of the room.

With that last point in mind, earlier this week, after the Georgia Chamber luncheon in Macon, we asked Kemp what he thought of DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond’s effort to recast the way history is told at Stone Mountain Park, a state property and Confederate flashpoint.

The state park, managed by a private company, is a perpetual boycott target. Thurmond, the only black board member on the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, has offered a way out of this dilemma.

His price: Abandonment of the myth that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery and its place in America. Leave the giant carving but acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that, on Thanksgiving Day in 1915, the mountain served as the birthplace of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. And put up that bell tower to mark the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reference to the mountain in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Last year, after that violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Abrams declared she wanted the carving of Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson removed. But earlier this month, a report on an Abrams rally in the Chattanooga Times Free Press included this:

She also spoke passionately about the need to remove Confederate statues — or, in the case of Stone Mountain, to at least provide more context about Georgia's history of slavery.

A campaign spokeswoman said Abrams’ position hasn’t changed, but acknowledged the accuracy of the report. “At least” implies the existence of middle ground.

But Kemp had not been heard on the topic. So we asked.

The Republican nominee for governor began by noting that he and Thurmond, the DeKalb CEO, are both natives of Athens and know each other well. Kemp declined to endorse the erection of a bell tower atop Stone Mountain, saying he didn’t know enough about the topic.

But the secretary of state did offer this thought on his approach to history, and he didn’t parrot Trump:

“I have the Condoleezza Rice theory. I don’t believe we can run from our history. We need to embrace it and learn from it, and be a better state and a better country.”

That’s a good start. It doesn’t contradict or repudiate what Thurmond is after. But it is not enough.

Here’s the thing: Thurmond first placed his solution for Stone Mountain on the table in January. He did so again, on April 4, the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination – in a speech in front of the Confederate carving.

Eight months on, only a single Republican office-holder, state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, has publicly endorsed it. This bears repeating: Aside from Millar, for the better part of a year, Republicans in office (and those on the campaign trail) have responded with stony silence.

Pun very much intended.

Thurmond’s pitch deserves an answer – not just from Kemp, but from Georgia Republicans up and down the ticket. And well before November.

***

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday vented about the debate in Randolph County over its proposal to close seven of nine polling precincts shortly before the November election.

His point: You wanted local control, you got it. Here’s his full quote: 

“Every time somebody says something about something, they’re all saying, ‘We want local control.’ Guess what? That decision is made by the local elections board in Randolph County. I think that’s the way it should be.

“This has highlighted the importance some people have placed on not closing voting precincts. But Randolph County is one of those places where the revenue has diminished significantly. And local county governments have to pay for these services, to make sure they’re using the tax money wisely.

“It’s one I don’t get into. Fortunately, I don’t have to.”

***

Four of the five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders who took a knee during the national anthem last year aren’t coming back to the squad this year.

***

If you’re looking for a primer on what Democratic candidates will be talking about on the stump this year, look no further than the talking points U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi sent her colleagues on Wednesday:

-- Lowering health care costs and prescription drug prices;

-- Increasing workers’ pay through strong economic growth by rebuilding America; and

-- Cleaning up corruption to make Washington work for you.

Health care has long been a dominant issue in Georgia. Certainly, the last bullet point got a little boost from this week’s headlines regarding Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Duncan Hunter.

Did you notice the word that doesn’t appear in Pelosi’s message? Hint: It begins with an “i”.

***

Georgia hasn’t exactly been on the cutting edge of the country’s marijuana legalization debate. So we were surprised to see U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, listed as an original co-sponsor of a new medical marijuana bill.

The Fairness in Federal Drug Test Under State Laws Act would bar the feds from firing or denying employment to people solely for using medical marijuana. That would apply only in the states where medical weed is legal and to people working civilian jobs without top-secret security clearances.

Ferguson sees the legislation as a way to help veterans. The federal government is the largest employer of vets, and one recent American Legion poll found that one in five use marijuana to alleviate medical conditions such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. Under current law, federal employees can be fired from their jobs for failing a drug test.

"No one should face unemployment for choosing to pursue private legal medical treatment," Ferguson said.

The bipartisan effort has been blessed by the godfather of Georgia’s medical marijuana program, retiring state Rep. Allen Peake.

***

A third Trump pick for Georgia district judge could be confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the weeks ahead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday teed up a vote on Stan Baker to fill an open U.S. District Court judgeship in south Georgia. 

The movement came nearly a year after the Savannah-based federal magistrate judge was first tapped for the position.

Baker’s nomination is not considered particularly controversial -- the influential American Bar Association tagged him as “well qualified” in its review of Trump’s judicial nominees – but he had gotten caught in the broader partisan fighting over nominees.

The Senate has already confirmed two other district-level Georgia judges, Michael Brown and Tripp Self, as well as a trio of judges to the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Billy Ray, a former Republican lawmaker and ex-Gwinnett County Superior Court judge, is still awaiting Senate approval to serve as a judge in Atlanta’s district court.

***

Over at Project Q, Patrick Saunders over at Project Q has a deep look at the LGBT issues factoring into the competitive Senate race in a Dunwoody-based district between Republican incumbent Fran Millar and Democrat Sally Harrell. Check it out here. 

***

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