The Jolt: Race enters the pandemic picture in Atlanta

January 14, 2020 - Atlanta -  Rep.  Calvin Smyre D - Columbus, watches as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms talks with the media after she addressed the house.  The Georgia General Assembly continued with the second legislative day of the 2020 session.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
January 14, 2020 - Atlanta - Rep. Calvin Smyre D - Columbus, watches as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms talks with the media after she addressed the house. The Georgia General Assembly continued with the second legislative day of the 2020 session. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

The evening was already surreal, what with President Donald Trump throwing Brian Kemp under the bus and disavowing the governor's plans to begin allowing small businesses to open doors closed by the pandemic.

"Would I do that? No," Trump had said from the White House. "I want to protect people's lives. But I'm going to let him make his decision. But I told him I totally disagree."

Back in Atlanta,at 10 p.m., with her 9-year-old daughter looking over her shoulder, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms received a text on her phone: “[N-word], just shut up and RE-OPEN ATLANTA!”

Seven minutes later, Bottoms displayed the racist message in a Tweet of her own. She told the anonymous sender that she would pray for him/her, and added a summation that quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on the dangers of "conscientious stupidity or sincere ignorance."

The message came over the mayor’s personal mobile phone, but a spokesman told us this morning that the number is the same used -- and often published -- when Bottoms was a member of the Atlanta City Council.

Over the last few days, Bottoms has been increasingly critical of Kemp’s decision to allow many businesses in Georgia to reopen, and had stated that she was blindsided by the order.

Race has often been an unspoken subtext in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. We know that, nationwide, the pandemic has claimed a disproportionate number of African Americans lives. In Georgia, the picture is less clear -- if only because a question denoting race was left off early testing registration forms. The situation was corrected two weeks ago.

The governor’s executive order, which Kemp has indicated he’ll proceed with despite President Trump’s objections, allows barbershops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, gyms and fitness centers to reopen. Such businesses often rely on low-wage workers, a group that is disproportionately made up of people of color.

***

With President Trump and Gov. Brian Kemp now at odds over how early Georgia should reopen its economy, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who leads one of the state's most populous counties, will attempt to pour a little oil on the roiling waters later this afternoon. Thurmond is expected to issue an executive order that fills in many of the gaps in the governor's order.

It will include a demand that masks be required for all those who enter a public square with less than six feet of separation. Thurmond doesn’t have the authority to contradict Kemp, and so he will “direct, encourage and implore” business owners and customers to comply.

***

One of the more remarkable aspects of President Trump's remarks late Wednesday was that he and the governor had had a one-on-one conversation only the day before:

The two men spoke late Tuesday in what aides to Kemp described as a productive conversation about Kemp's approach, and top Georgia Republicans said they had no indication that Trump would undercut his strategy. 

The reversal also creates an awkward situation for Karen Handel, who is attempting to regain her Sixth District congressional seat, and endorsed Kemp's plans on Facebook. But no one has been put in a worse position than U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.:

In a quirk of timing, she joined the governor on a tele-town hall shortly before Trump's press briefing where she spoke of Kemp's approach as a needed step to help revive Georgia's flagging economy. 

"Poor Kelly did this to herself. She asked Brian to help her across the political street and they both got hit by a bus," said Collins spokesman Dan McLagan. "Which then got backed over them. And caught fire."

Tweeted out this morning by Tim Bryant of WGAU (1340AM) in Athens:

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but if I were I'd look at the developments of last evening and see President Trump putting his thumb on the scale for Doug Collins.

So we’re betting that the public humiliation of Kemp by Trump could have November implications.

Sure, Kemp will still gladhand the president when Air Force One lands, and appear with the president at campaign rallies. But we wouldn’t be surprised if Kemp is less enthusiastic behind the scenes.

***

One piece of good news for the governor — his decision to reopen parts of the economy led to the cancellation of the "ReopenGA" vehicle rally at the state Capitol on Friday -- before President Trump tossed in the wrench.

"The state of Georgia got a huge win," wrote organizer Ryan Lawson. "No, our state is not ENTIRELY open yet, but we've definitely headed in the right direction."

And yet there must be confusion within the ranks of Operation Gridlock, too. Those behind the protests have been considered a key part of the Trump re-election base.

***

Many, many of you have been desperate to find out whether Gov. Brian Kemp's order to reopen many businesses in the next few days will have an impact on unemployment benefits. The answer from the AJC's Michael Kanell is that it might. Some workers could be forced to choose between their sense of safety and their need for a paycheck:

[I]f their employer reopens and insists that they return to work – even if the employee does not feel safe – the law does not consider them unemployed, Atlanta labor lawyer Amanda Farahany said. "If there is work available, and they are refusing to go to work, then they will not be eligible for unemployment."

Those workers will have a tough choice, said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

"No worker should be forced to choose between their health and their ability to put food on the table," he said.

***

A Fulton County elections employee has died from COVID-19 and a voter registration manager was hospitalized, slowing the county's ability to handle a flood of absentee ballot requests for Georgia's June 9 primary, our AJC colleague Mark Niesse reports.

Beverly Walker, a registration officer, died April 15 at age 62, said Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron.

***

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is trying to carve out a role for himself as a liaison to Georgia's business community.

The lieutenant governor wrote Gov. Brian Kemp this week that he’s been “communicating with a wide range of business leaders across the state, from CEOs of large publicly traded companies to sole proprietors of small businesses.”

His letter detailed a number of recommendations, including clearing hospitals to perform elective procedures and an adjustment to “liability protection” for companies that resume business.

Duncan has also recently appeared on CNBC to talk about Georgia’s plans for economic recovery, and appeared alongside Kemp this week at his press conference rolling back restrictions.

***

Reported yesterday: Georgia lawmakers are eyeing a June 11 resumption of the 2020 legislative session, a date that must still be agreed upon by House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

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Democrat Matt Lieberman became the latest U.S. Senate candidate to release a digital ad slamming Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler's stock transactions as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

The 100-second digital ad claims Loeffler "could have warned us, instead she cashed out and covered up" after taking viewers through a timeline of her transactions.

The newly-appointed Republican has said she’s done nothing wrong.

***

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath is hitting the virtual campaign trail with some familiar allies.

This afternoon, she will be one of the featured speakers at an online rally hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the political arm of the gun control group that is financed by Michael Bloomberg. McBath's advocacy after the murder of her son Jordan led to a job with Everytown, and the group is a major donor to her campaign.

During today’s virtual rally, Everytown will also list the hundreds of “gun sense” candidates it is supporting in races across the nation and including Georgia.

On Saturday, McBath's campaign is hosting a video conference with Stacey Abrams. The event will focus on topics like voter suppression and the state and federal response to the coronavirus outbreak.

***

On May 3 and 4, the Atlanta Press Club will host virtual debates of candidates in contested primaries for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and the state Public Service Commission. All debates will take place live via video in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. The debates will be available for viewers to watch online live or on demand via Facebook at www.fb.com/TheAtlantaPressClub and GPB.org.

All candidates who qualify with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to have their name on the ballot are invited to participate in the debates.

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