The Jolt: Hate-crimes bill draws increased GOP support after protests

June 23, 2020 Atlanta -  Sen. Michael 'Doc' Rhett (D-Marietta), left, and Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) give each other a fist bump after Sen. Michael 'Doc' Rhett spoke to support HB-426 in the Senate Chambers on day 37 of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. HB-426 passed. The bill would implement stiffer penalties if those guilty of crimes are found to have been motivated by hate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
June 23, 2020 Atlanta - Sen. Michael 'Doc' Rhett (D-Marietta), left, and Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) give each other a fist bump after Sen. Michael 'Doc' Rhett spoke to support HB-426 in the Senate Chambers on day 37 of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. HB-426 passed. The bill would implement stiffer penalties if those guilty of crimes are found to have been motivated by hate. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

<i>News and analysis from the AJC politics team</i>

No vote in Georgia showed how the protests over race and justice have influenced state politics quite so much as Tuesday's debate over a hate-crimes measure.

When the Georgia House voted last year on the proposal, it squeaked by with 96 votes, just above the constitutional majority needed. When the measure landed back in the House yesterday for a final vote, it passed overwhelmingly with 127 yays.

The 31 new “yes” votes offer a glimpse of which GOP incumbents are antsiest about November and, less cynically, who might have been genuinely moved by Ahmaud Arbery’s death and the rallies for racial equality.

The bloc of “no” votes — a group that includes a U.S. House frontrunner and some of the chamber’s top Republican lawmakers — offers a reminder of why it took 16 years to adopt a new hate-crimes law.

The measure had bipartisan support from suburban lawmakers in the first round. But the group of flippers included a cross-section from other corners of the GOP, including small-town swing districts and rural and exurban territories.

Among them is Mike Cheokas, who represents Jimmy Carter’s backyard in southwest Georgia, Karen Mathiak of Griffin, Jesse Petrea of Savannah, Marcus Wiedower of Watkinsville and Houston Gaines of Athens.

“I’m glad we were able to get this bill over the finish line. The addition of reporting requirements and the changes related to certain offenses were critical for me,” said Gaines, who is one of the top Democratic targets in 2020.

The “no” votes include some potentially vulnerable incumbent Republicans, too. John Carson of Marietta, Ginny Ehrhart of Powder Springs and Ed Setzler of Acworth were among the opponents of the measure.

So was Matt Gurtler, the front-runner in the August runoff to succeed U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in the 9th Congressional District. Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas, one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders, also voted against the measure.

Two other Kemp floor leaders took a walk on the vote: Terry Rogers of Clarkesville and Jodi Lott of Evans. 
The fourth Kemp House floor leader, Bert Reeves of Marietta, was a yes.

We can’t make a similar comparison in the Senate since the legislation never reached a vote last year. But every suburban Republican voted for it, and the six who did not were largely from rural or exurban areas.

***

It was a startling moment during the fraught debate over hate-crimes legislation. State Sen. Renee Unterman outlined in detail the discrimination she's faced since converting to Judaism, dating back to her time as Loganville's mayor.

She said the anti-Semitic undertones extended to her most recent campaign, a failed bid for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District. She lost that race to Dr. Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician who emphasized his Christianity.

Unterman talked of participating in a Christmas parade in the district and dressing her pickup truck in neutral colors. She said she ran into McCormick and he goaded her to wear a Christmas sweater.

She had flashbacks, she said, to when she was Loganville’s mayor and a hate group pointedly delivered its newspaper to her doorstep.

"What he was doing to me was not a hate crime, but it was belittling me because of my religion and my faith," she said.

McCormick later said it was a “friendly conversation” and that he was challenging her to wear a tacky sweater at a light-hearted event.

"Mine was a really ugly Christmas sweater. Remember, it was a Christmas parade," he said. "Let's not cheapen the debate on race by crying wolf like Renee regularly has done when things don't go her way."

***

Speaking of that campaign, the left-leaning Emily's List PAC commissioned a Public Policy Polling survey of the Gwinnett-based 7th District that pointed to the area's changing politics.

The poll found Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump 50-44 in the district and Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux deadlocked with Republican Rich McCormick in the U.S. House race, with a 42-39 edge that’s within the poll’s margin of error.

***

Shortly after the American Conservative Union endorsed U.S. Rep. Doug Collins' Senate bid, the incumbent's campaign countered. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler's campaign trumpeted that her colleague, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, had thrown his support behind her campaign. Except … Cotton had actually endorsed her months ago.

***

The city of South Fulton, which bills itself as the "Blackest city in America," unanimously voted this week to make Juneteenth a paid city holiday and set aside funds for a celebration next year.

DeKalb County is also considering the same.

***

The man who killed U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath's son was denied an appeal of his sentence on first-degree murder charges, the Florida Times-Union reports. McBath became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son's death, which put her on the path to Congress.

More from the T-U:

Michael Dunn took the case to the (Florida) Supreme Court in December after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against him in the murder of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. As is common, justices did not explain their reasons Monday for declining to take up the case.

The murder drew national media coverage and came amid increased scrutiny of the deaths of young black men. Dunn is white, while Davis was black. The shooting came after Davis and three friends stopped at a Gate convenience store and Dunn pulled into an adjacent parking space. 

… At the appeals court, Dunn contended, in part, that he had received “ineffective assistance of counsel” during his trial. As an example, Dunn argued that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to hire an expert to examine audio from the convenience store’s surveillance video, but the appeals court rejected the argument.

***

Mark your calendars, the Atlanta Press Club has scheduled a series of runoff debates on July 19. Candidates for the Republican runoffs in Congressional Districts 9 & 14 and the Democratic runoffs in Districts 1 & 9 are invited to attend.

The debates will air on Georgia Public Broadcasting and on the social media channels of the APC and GPB.

***

Clayton Fuller, a former Republican candidate in Georgia's 14th Congressional District, has endorsed Dr. John Cowan in the runoff. He joins three other former competitors who already have done the same: John Barge, Ben Bullock, and Andy Gunther.

Cowan faces businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in August. Republicans began distancing themselves from Greene after an article highlighting a host of racist and xenophobic comments she made.

***

Legislators grilled Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over problems with this month's primary and asked how he is working to prevent future issues. The AJC's Mark Niesse has the report:

Raffensperger acknowledged that long lines in Georgia’s June 9 primary were “unacceptable” but downplayed problems with the state’s new voting system. He said most difficulties in the election occurred in Fulton County, which had some of the most extreme wait times.

The state Capitol hearing, part of an investigation ordered by Republican House Speaker David Ralston, came as legislators are seeking ways to avoid a repeat of three-hour waits, precinct closures and equipment difficulties during a high-turnout presidential election in November.

“It’s not going to work and it’s not going to be good enough for you to just keep saying it’s in Fulton County and not my issue,” said state Rep. Renitta Shannon, a Democrat from Decatur. “What specific policies are you going to put in place?”

Raffensperger, a Republican, responded that election officials need to add voting locations, improve hands-on training and encourage early voting. He said he’s reaching out to community groups such as Rotary Clubs, Boy Scouts and sororities to ask whether they can host precincts.

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