Gov. Brian Kemp at a press conference in the state Capitol earlier this week. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Super Bowl over, the culture wars return to Georgia

The Super Bowl freeze is definitely over. After weeks of quiet on the culture wars front, two major pieces of social conservative legislation hit within hours of each other. 

One would give Gov. Brian Kemp some cover with religious conservatives who helped him win the GOP nomination last year. The other seems sure to give him a headache.

Let’s start with the first: A “trigger law” introduced with Kemp’s backing would set the stage for Georgia to outlaw most abortions -- if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade and lawmakers pass another resolution afterwards. 

The measure, which at this hour still has not been assigned a tracking number, would allow Kemp to tell his conservative base he took a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to enact the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions -- without altering the status quo. That would be left entirely to the nation’s highest court.

One intent appears to be the avoidance of a backlash among women voters. A January poll by the AJC showed that, after his hard-fought victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams, the new governor’s approval rating among women stood at 31 percent.

It was the first Georgia contest in decades in which Democratic mailers aimed at Republican women raised the topic of access to abortion.

The second social conservative bill introduced on Thursday is even more complicated in its implications. Kemp said on the campaign trail he’d support a “religious liberty” bill -- but only if it mirrors the 1993 federal version of the law. 

A bill dropped by state Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, includes that language -- along with other provisions that go above and beyond that language. From the AJC report: 

The bill filed this week includes the same language as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it also includes provisions that would allow plaintiffs who win lawsuits against the government to recover their legal costs in religious cases. Another addition to the bill spells out that judges would be able to order governments to change their laws and practices deemed to infringe on religious beliefs, but it would bar monetary damages.

That means Kemp could insist that the bill violates his exact-match condition, even if that risks alienating more conservatives. So far, he hasn’t taken any stance: He declined to comment Thursday on the bill after a press conference.

Democrats were happy to talk, assailing both pieces of legislation. State party chair and state Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta said Democrats will “do everything in our power to fight this terrible legislation.” 

"Brian Kemp made his entire campaign about job-killing policies that will take our state backward, and today, he has doubled down on those promises,” she said Thursday. 

“RFRA and the abortion ban stand to not only drive companies away from our state, but will threaten the equal rights and safety of thousands of Georgians.”

***

The “trigger law” development brought to mind this lengthy piece by The Daily Report that pondered the question: If Roe v. Wade is overturned, what happens in Georgia? Here’s a taste:

The end of Roe would mean the question of abortion legality returns to individual states—and most likely their high courts. A case in the Georgia Supreme Court could test its 113-year-old decision finding a right of privacy in the state constitution, considered the first of its kind in the country. The decision was key to the court striking down the state’s law criminalizing sodomy in 1998.

***

We have news from the two most important “swing” counties in metro Atlanta:

-- Our AJC colleague Tyler Estep reports that former state senator Curt Thompson, who suffered a primary defeat last year, will run for Gwinnett County Commission chairman in 2020. If elected, he’d be the first Democrat to hold the post in more than three decades.

The commission is currently chaired by Republican Charlotte Nash.

-- Michael Owens announced this morning that he will resign as chairman of the Cobb County Democratic party, effective March 24. Election of a new chair will be held April 11.

Keep an eye on Owen: He’s tried once before to primary U.S. Rep. David Scott, who has held the 13th District seat since 2003. Take this resignation as a sign that Owens will probably try again in 2020.

***

The two most progressive members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, John Lewis and Hank Johnson, have signed on as cosponsors of “Medicare for all” legislation in the House. From Bloomberg:

The measure by Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal would steer all Americans — not just those 65 and older — into the Medicare program in two years. It would cover comprehensive health-care services and, in a radical departure from the existing system, limit private insurance to benefits not provided by the government-run program.

Democrats running in Georgia’s most competitive swing districts, including the newly elected U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Roswell, have steered clear of the idea, which Republicans bill as “socialism.” But Lewis and Johnson are in safe Democratic districts that Hillary Clinton won by upwards of 50 percentage points in 2016.

***

No Democrat has formally announced a challenge to U.S. Sen. David Perdue in 2020, but that isn’t stopping EMILY’s List from hopping into the Georgia contest. The political action committee, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, included the first-term Republican in a list of six top Senate targets in the upcoming election cycle. “All six of these Senators have been rubber stamps for the Trump administration’s harmful policies at the expense of the American people,” said Stephanie Schriock, the group’s president. The announcement suggests that EMILY’s List not only intends to help recruit a Perdue challenger in Georgia, but that it could spend heavily in the state in the lead-up to the election.

This comes as the political world waits for former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to decide whether she’ll challenge Perdue or hold out for another contest, perhaps the 2022 governor’s race. Abrams has given herself a late March deadline to make a decision. EMILY’s List endorsed Abrams during her gubernatorial run.

***

Fresh off its blockbuster Michael Cohen hearing, the U.S. House Oversight Committee is requesting a transcribed interview with Atlanta attorney Stefan Passantino.

In a letter to Trump’s onetime White House ethics guru, who now represents the Trump Organization in private practice, committee chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the committee intends to “address issues related to President Donald Trump’s financial disclosure reporting and the reimbursement of Michael Cohen for payments to silence women alleging affairs before the 2016 election.”

The panel sent a similar request to Sheri Dillon, who was Trump’s personal attorney. Cummings singled out the duo last month, accusing them of potentially providing “false information” to federal investigators looking into hush money paid out by Cohen. Two top Republicans on the committee have since come to Passantino’s defense, as has his former law partner Doug Chalmers.

***

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, will be the only Georgia lawmaker serving on the House’s newly-created climate change panel. Which makes sense, given that his First District encompasses the entire Georgia coast.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California announced the appointment on Thursday.

In case you’re wondering, Carter, a three-term member of Congress, said in a statement Thursday that “climate change is real and the need to protect our environment is real.”

As anybody who has traveled U.S. 80 to Tybee Island could tell you. But -- and there always is a “but,” isn’t there?

"Unfortunately, many proposals coming out of Congress right now are big government solutions that are job-killing, too expensive, not actually effective and even completely unfeasible," he said. "I want to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to create solutions to address climate change that are realistic, market-based and will actually have an impact on climate change."

***

Years ago, Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy played at the edges of Georgia’s political world. A Barry Goldwater conservative in his youth, Searcy became a George McGovern liberal who worked in the Jimmy Carter administration, then was a press spokesman for former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.

Since the 1990s, he’s been a resident of Vietnam, heading up a Hanoi-based organization dedicated to the clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance left by U.S. troops in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Searcy lives within a few steps of where the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un took place.

Searcy sent a note this morning describing the event, which ended Thursday. Click here for the entire read. An excerpt:

Someone told me that when Trump exited his dinner with Kim at the famous Sofitel Metropole Legend hotel near Hoan Kim Lake the night before, he turned on the light in the limo so people could see his face as he waved. Nice touch. (A few foreigners told me they had a different observation about that.) 

Vietnamese friends inquired if I had been invited to the dinner with Trump. I don't think they were kidding.

People in Ha Noi have been reserved, polite, curious, extremely gracious -- as always, whether a special occasion or not. The many traffic snarls and long detours to keep traffic away from the meeting sites or the Melia Hotel where Kim Jong-un and his party are staying (just two blocks from my house, so I’ve done more walking than usual), have been met with patience and relaxed acceptance. I’ve seen no snarls of chagrin on anyone’s face. 

In fact, Vietnamese seem to be taking some quiet pride in the selection of Ha Noi as the city to host this meeting. The city has been spruced up with new flower boxes along sidewalks and around parks all over town, some buildings repainted for the occasion, T-shirt vendors out in force with a variety of Trump and Kim visages. Lots of "peace" messages. Citizens modestly point to their history as a country that is “a friend to every nation” and a country that is safe, stable, secure, perfect for a summit such as this one. 

Chuck Searcy with a souvenir T-shirt from the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi

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