03/13/2020 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston, R - Blue Ridge, speaks to media following the 29th day of the Georgia Legislative session, Friday, March 13, 2020. Out of caution and in relation to the coronavirus, the Georgia General General Assembly suspended the legislative session until further notice. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The Jolt: David Ralston wants a hate crimes bill ‘with no delay and no amendments’

The slaying of Ahmaud Arbery has reignited a debate over whether Georgia should adopt a hate-crimes law, and one of the state’s most powerful Republicans has forcefully picked a side. 

In an interview Monday with one of your Insiders, Ralston said he would “challenge and implore” Senate lawmakers to pass the hate crimes bill already adopted by his chamber, House Bill 426, “with no delay and no amendments” when the session resumes in June.

“The time for being silent ended last week,” Ralston said. “It’s time to do what’s right. It’s going to take some leadership and some courage, but I think it’s time to act.”

Asked why House lawmakers shouldn’t consider any changes to the measure, which is tied up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ralston said it would be “counterproductive” to revisit legislation that narrowly passed his chamber a year ago.

“It’s a good time to remember that the power of the majority in a legislative body carries not only opportunity but responsibility,” said Ralston. “Sometimes, exercising the responsibility demands some courage and bold leadership. Last week, we came to a point where we’re called upon to be responsible.”

And then: 

“It’s a shame that it took a video of this to engage many leaders, but our responsibility is threefold: to demonstrate that Georgia and Glynn County will not be tarnished by this act of evil. It’s time that we bring our law into the 21st century and make it more just, and it’s time to do what’s right.”

We also talked to state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He sounded a skeptical note about the measure’s chances of passing during the final stretch of the session. 

Stone said there’s still no consensus about whether to move forward, and that many of the committee’s members are opposed because it could limit the discretion of trial judges or because of a “philosophical concern” about requiring different punishments for similar crimes.

The bill doesn’t do enough in some areas and it goes too far in others,” Stone said. “We’ve got our plate full with bills that we do need to move on, so if a consensus comes together, it’s possible we can move on this. But if it doesn’t, it could lag behind.”

***

As the Ahmaud Arbery case was passed from district attorney to district attorney in coastal Georgia after the Feb. 23 killing, the office of Attorney General Chris Carr wasn’t always informed in a timely manner.

In fact, local prosecutors in that region have a history of -- well, let’s call it independence. Back in 2013, the district attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, Richard Currie, decided to retire midterm. He named and had sworn in his top assistant, George Barnhill, as his replacement. This is the same George Barnhill who recused himself from the Arbery case -- the second prosecutor to do so.

But replacing district attorneys mid-term is a job for governors, and Nathan Deal wasn’t pleased at Currie’s attempt at a fait accompli. Deal instead appointed Bradley Collins, an assistant district attorney who had just been sacked by Barnhill.

The timing was somewhat awkward. Collins had just been released from the hospital, having been badly burnt in a kitchen grease fire, we’re told. Barnhill challenged Collins in 2014, and won the GOP primary -- and then the general election.

***

A massive Washington Post-Ipsos survey of 8,000 adults (not voters) was released this morning, looking at the popularity of governors and how they’ve handled the pandemic.

Take the findings with a heaping grain of salt, however, since only 219 Georgians were polled.

 From the Post:

The contrast is widest in two states won by Trump in 2016. In Ohio, 86 percent of adults say they approve of the way Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who moved aggressively to close down his state and has been cautious about lifting the restrictions, has dealt with the crisis.

In Georgia, 39 percent of adults approve of the performance of Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who moved less swiftly than some other governors to mitigate the spread and has been in the forefront of reopening the economy there.

***

The 1Q marketing research platform is also out with its latest survey on Georgia’s pandemic response, and here are some of the online poll’s findings:

-- Two-thirds of Georgians say the reopening is happening “too fast,” and about the same proportion say they aren’t revisiting reopened businesses. About 62% say the pandemic will get worse in the coming weeks. 

-- Some 60% of people say they regularly wear masks, while 20% say they never or rarely don one. 

-- About 61% of people disapprove of Gov. Brian Kemp’s pandemic response.

Take a closer look at the poll and the methodology here.

***

Already posted: Gov. Brian Kemp is likely to announce today that he will keep bars and nightclubs shuttered until the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

***

In veepstakes news, Joe Biden and Stacey Abrams will appear together on MSNBC at 10 p.m. Thursday.

The Biden campaign also announced Abrams’ formal endorsement on Tuesday ahead of the event, although she had backed the former vice president earlier. 

A quick reminder: Abrams was neutral in the presidential race because, she said, she didn’t want to be seen as tied to any primary candidate through her work with the Fair Fight voting rights group. She began publicly expressing support for Biden once he became the lone candidate left in the race.

***

So we were reading a report from The Intercept, a nonprofit news organization, about Vice President Mike Pence’s maskless trip to Iowa last week – the one that was slightly delayed by the fact that his press secretary had tested positive for the coronavirus.

At a roundtable event that featured two Georgians, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, business execs were asked to remove their masks.

Two days later Bloomberg News reported that Pence had decided to self-isolate at his home in Washington over the weekend.

But these paragraphs are what caught our eye:

Video of [an] earlier event attended by the vice president, a meeting with Iowa faith leaders to discuss the planned reopening of places of worship, showed that just one participant, Rabbi David Kaufman, wore a mask.

Kaufman told Pence that his community was not ready to return to in-person services, partly because of the importance of singing in their services, which spreads even more respiratory droplets than speaking.

We looked around, and sure enough, this is a consideration that many congregations are wrestling with, regardless of religion. From the Washington Post:

Should houses of worship refrain from any communal singing? It’s tough to give a definitive answer, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, who worked as an epidemiologist in Boston and is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Singing could allow for respiratory droplets to fly farther. Masks might help, but they might not be the complete solution to prevent flying droplets.

“It’s always safer to say no,” he said. “You have a lot of people in an enclosed space for a period of time.”

***

A sign of incoming super PAC help? Or at least hope for some outside aid?

U.S. Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson, a Democrat running for the seat currently occupied by Republican David Perdue, released on YouTube a series of clips designed for b-roll. It’s a typical approach for campaigns that are barred from cooperation with outside groups, but still want to have a hand in how their candidates are portrayed. 

The clips include action shots of the candidate and scattered conversation between Tomlinson and supporters. Take a look here

***

Prominent music artists purchased an ad in the AJC that takes the form of an open letter to Gov. Brian Kemp and other state officials.

The letter asks government officials to ensure a fair trial for the father and son arrested last week in the Feb. 23 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and also encourages the arrest of a third man who was with them and shot video of the incident. It also requested a special prosecutor to be appointed, which Attorney General Chris Carr announced Monday he had done.

“Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmaud Arbery. We will continue to say his name and will be persistent in our calls for justice until it is served,” the letter said.

Signers include Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Alicia Keys, Robert “Meek Mill” Williams and Attorney Benjamin Crump. Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s management and entertainment firm, said it was responsible for the full-page advertisement on page A-5 in Sunday’s paper.

***

Marietta-based MiMedx has returned the $10 million it received from the federal government as part of a stimulus program for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

MiMedx, which makes grafts for surgical procedures, initially said it needed the loan to avoid cutting jobs; its leaders vowed to keep the money even as it faced criticism.

Company spokeswoman Hilary Dixon told the AJC’s Michael Kanell that the situation since improved and the money is going back. “Since we received the funds, the environment in the health sector has changed, giving us a clearer horizon,” she said. 

MiMedx is one of five companies who received letters from a House committee last week asking them to return the Payment Protection Program funds. Dixon said the company had already decided to repay the loan in full before receiving that letter.

***

State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, wants to rename a Reidsville state park after Sen. Jack Hill, who died last month. More from our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu:

Hill, a Reidsville Republican who guided the state budget through the Senate for nearly 20 years, died April 6 at his office. His death was not related to COVID-19, officials said.

Werkheiser said he believed renaming the park after Hill was the best way to honor the former senator’s legacy

“Senator Hill has been a close friend, mentor and an incredible statesman not only to this area, but the entire state,” said Werkheiser, who serves as chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee. “His wisdom and leadership will be greatly missed. The naming of this park will be a reminder for generations of his contributions to this great state.”

***

In endorsement news:

-- Karen Handel, a Republican seeking to regain her Sixth District congressional seat, is currently touting the endorsement of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California in ads on social media. (McCarthy actually endorsed Handel’s bid last year.)

-- Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative super PAC backed by the Koch brothers, has endorsed state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, who faces a June 9 primary challenge from Dan McEntire, a carpet manufacturing veteran. The endorsement is important, because as a sitting lawmaker, Payne is barred from raising campaign cash while the Legislature, while suspended, remains in session.

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