December 4, 2015 Atlanta: Grady Memorial Hospital shot Friday afternoon December 4, 2015. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

The Jolt: Grady hospital takes a hit in fight over U.S. Senate seat

Two Atlanta institutions have suffered collateral damage in the eruption over Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision -- expected to become formal this week -- to appoint finance executive Kelly Loeffler as U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s replacement.

President Donald Trump has recommended U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

In the resulting battle, one surprising target has been Grady Memorial Hospital. Attacks centered on Kelly Loeffler’s service on the hospital’s governing board have proven particularly unnerving for some local Republicans.

The onslaught came last week from a group of anti-abortion advocates that includes Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List, who called Grady a “training ground for abortionists.” Dannenfelser said Loeffler’s ties with the hospital should “disqualify her from representing the state.”

Grady is the largest trauma care provider in the state and an essential part of Georgia’s healthcare network. It does not perform elective abortions and hasn’t for at least a decade. Dannenfelser said she cited Grady because of its ties to Emory University’s School of Medicine.

Grady’s board is no liberal outpost. It includes a cross-section of some of the state’s leading medical and business names, including retired Home Depot chief executive Frank Blake, a stalwart Republican who chairs the group, and former Metro Atlanta Chamber chief Sam Williams.

Another member is Bernie Tokarz, a policy wonk who was tapped by Gov. Nathan Deal to sit on a regional transportation board four years ago. He told us he found Loeffler to be a “consummate professional focused squarely on how best to improve health outcomes for our patients.”

Chuck Eaton, a Republican recently elected to another term on the state Public Service Commission, said he was insulted that Grady has been at the center of political back-and-forth. It’s personal for him: His 2-year-old daughter, who is adopted, was born at Grady.

“We ought to be thanking every one of those board members who donate their time toward ensuring Grady remains one of the premier burn and trauma centers in the Southeast,” said Eaton. “Not to mention all the important indigent care they do for our community.”

***

That other institution taking hits in the fight over Kemp’s choice? Pro basketball.

Loeffler is co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, which participated in a WNBA charity promotion that sent a portion of ticket receipts to six organizations, including Planned Parenthood.

But the language gets rougher. Here’s a line from from a website called Big League Politics, tweeted out this morning by tea partyist Debbie Dooley:

The WNBA has never turned a profit throughout its entire existence, and serves as little more than an outlet for violent lesbian brutes to act out their aggression on a public stage.

We’ve been here before. Long ago, former Gov. Carl Sanders owned a portion of  the Atlanta Hawks. The team moved to the city in 1968. In 1970, Sanders sought the governor’s office again. His Democratic primary opponent was an up-and-coming state Sen. Jimmy Carter of Plains.

Carter was running to the right of the man he dubbed “Cufflinks Carl.” Among his targets were white voters made uncomfortable by integration. During the campaign, a photo made the rounds that underlined Sanders’ willingness to associate with people of color. The image: Sanders getting doused with celebratory champagne by a black player.

Yes, champagne, winning and the Hawks used to be a thing.

***

Meanwhile, the internecine war over Johnny Isakson’s Senate seat continued over the weekend. 

Mark Levin, the radio host and ally of President Donald Trump, called Gov. Brian Kemp “another Romney” on Twitter. “He’s about to appoint a RINO to the Senate. His surrogates are trashing conservative critics like Gaetz,” Levin wrote.

The out-of-state umbrage might be just fine for Kemp and his aides. They’d much rather mock non-Georgians – see last week’s conflagration with Matt Gaetz of Florida – than knock the in-state activists who are critical of his decision.

It’s a convenient way to shift the narrative away from one that frames Kemp as someone willing to ignore Trump’s personal pleas, and toward a view that casts the governor as defiantly standing against what is now the party’s establishment.

***

After days of relative silence, Gov. Brian Kemp’s supporters have started to give him some cover for his presumptive pick of Loeffler. 

Former state lawmaker Buzz Brockway and Cole Muzio of the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia have been outspoken in their pleas for faith in Kemp’s decisions.

And Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, who applied for the seat, praised the governor’s tactical decision in planning to tap a business executive who would be the second female U.S. senator in state history to the seat.

“Kemp knows that keeping control of the GA House in 2020 Nov election is THE most important short term goal--because with that majority the GOP gets to redraw all maps in '21,” he wrote. “Those maps impact all 236 legislative seats & all Congressional seats. Kelly helps us win in 2020.”

The board of the Georgia Young Republicans also voted unanimously to back Kemp in whoever he picks. 

“Unity sometimes means swallowing pride and ambition and doing what is best for the party,” said Andrew Abbott, a spokesman for the group. 

This morning, conservative commentator Erick Erickson, based in Macon, also weighed in:

Conservatives love to say they want outsiders. Kemp is giving them what they want. That parts of the conservative movement are out to destroy Loeffler without knowing anything about her says a lot about the movement. It has been burned repeatedly by those it rallied around. But also, the movement is sometimes not willing to take leaps of faith with trusted allies when the movement should.

One organization that has remained noticeably mum is the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Ralph Reed, the organization’s founder, is a frequent visitor to the White House.

***

While we’re noting who isn’t speaking out, do note that President Donald Trump has yet to weigh in publicly on Kemp’s pending choice. Accounts of his contacts with the Georgia governor have been second-hand. And the White House press secretary last week described a meeting with Trump, Kemp and Loeffler as amicable.

***

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, meanwhile, hasn’t veered away from a possible challenge to Kelly Loeffler in 2020. 

On Sunday, the Georgia congressman appeared with Fox News host Chris Wallace, who pointed to remarks Collins  made to the AJC two weeks ago, warning that he might run were he not Kemp’s choice.

“That’ll be a decision we have to make,” said Collins, adding that defending President Trump in the U.S. House impeachment inquiry would be his highest priority.

***

A large crowd that included Gov. Brian Kemp, former Gov. Nathan Deal and dozens of House members gathered Sunday in Camilla to mourn the death of state Rep. Jay Powell, who died last week at a legislative retreat. 

His close friend, House Speaker David Ralston, reflected on his friendships across the aisle in a hand-written eulogy as Democrats and Republicans laughed together and cried together -- the way Powell would have wanted. Here’s a bit of what Ralston said:

In a world where hyper-partisanship has become much too common, Jay Powell was the very model of an almost-bygone era of civility, courtesy and cooperation. In the days since he left us, I have been blown away by the number of phone calls, emails and text messages I have received from members of the opposing party sharing heartfelt remembrances of this great man.”

***

Stacey Abrams is headlining a rally this evening for Savannah mayoral candidate Van Johnson, a city alderman, as state Democrats step up their efforts to flip the seat. The 5 p.m. rally will be held at a local union hall, WSAV reported, and it comes after Abrams forcefully endorsed Johnson a few weeks ago.

Alderman was the leading vote-getter in last month’s election, forcing a runoff against Mayor Eddie DeLoach, the first Republican elected to lead the city in decades.

The state Democratic Party also plans to send staffers to Savannah and Valdosta – home of another close race – to help mayoral candidates in those technically non-partisan races beat Republican contenders.

***

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is having a hard time finding someone to take U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s position as chairman of the Ethics Committee, The Hill reported over the weekend.

GOP senators who spoke with The Hill, including current members of the committee, had a nearly universal response when asked if they wanted to take over the Ethics Committee: Thanks, but no thanks. 

“Uh, I’m going to say probably not,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of GOP leadership, laughing when asked if she would like to chair the committee. “I don’t think that’s a sought-after position.” 

The lack of enthusiasm comes as the normally secretive committee has had high-profile investigations in recent years, putting a spotlight on why finding Isakson's successor could prove difficult: No one relishes investigating their colleagues.

Isakson is stepping down at the end of the year, but he will say his good-byes to colleagues and be feted on Tuesday. 

***

Climate change in coastal Georgia may be affecting the state’s shrimping industry, the AJC’s Meris Lutz reported in a piece that explains the economic impact of a dwindling white shrimp population.

The article digs into a disease affecting Georgia shrimp called “black gill” and a yearslong effort to determine its causes. You can read it here.

***

A new report has found that potential changes to food stamp eligibility could cost nearly 4 million people their benefits. 

The November study by the Urban Institute looked at three rule changes proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led by Sonny Perdue, and the impact they would have on participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“If the proposed regulations had been implemented last year, 3.7 million fewer people and 2.1 million fewer households would have received SNAP in an average month; annual benefits would have decreased by $4.2 billion,” the report said.

Just in time, our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu has penned a deeply-reported look at how Georgians use SNAP benefits. The results may surprise you:

Rural Georgians are more likely to need the help of food stamps to pay for their groceries, but that public help probably doesn’t stretch as far as it does in places such as Atlanta because of higher food prices in small-town stores.

Poor, rural Georgians pay more for fresh lettuce, macaroni and cheese, and other foods in part because there is so little competition for their business, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review.

...Some experts say the federal government should invest even more in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — to improve access to food for rural Georgians who typically have lower incomes, are more likely to receive the benefit but have to pay the higher prices.

***

This New York Times piece on a bit of Pennsylvania voting strangeness is likely to show in your Twitter feed today:

Vote totals in a Northampton County judge’s race showed one candidate, Abe Kassis, a Democrat, had just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots across more than 100 precincts. Some machines reported zero votes for him. In a county with the ability to vote for a straight-party ticket, one candidate’s zero votes was a near statistical impossibility. Something had gone quite wrong...

Though there has been no conclusive study as to what caused the machines to malfunction, as the machines are locked away for 20 days after an election according to state law, the prevailing theory is that the touch screens were plagued by a bug in the software. A senior intelligence official who focuses on election security said there were no visible signs of outside meddling by any foreign actors.

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