State Sen. Renee Unterman, R – Buford. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: Two GOP lawmakers sign onto Democratic effort to ratify the ERA

On Monday, state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, introduced Senate Resolution 55, a measure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment that was approved by Congress in 1972.

Thirty-seven states have passed it. A 38th is needed. And whether it matters could depend on whether a self-imposed deadline that accompanied the proposed amendment is written in stone.

But for the moment, that’s not important. The news is that, though it’s a Democratic measure, SR 55 already carries the signatures of every single member of the Senate Republican women’s caucus.

I.e., Sens. Kay Kirkpatrick of Marietta and Renee Unterman of Buford.

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

This comes two weeks after Democratic women in the chamber joined Unterman in a two-fold protest over a rule change that sets a deadline on sexual harassment complaints made against senators and staffers, and the decision by the Senate’s GOP leadership to strip Unterman of her chairmanship of the important Health and Human Services Committee. Women of the chamber, 13 of whom are Democrats, were being shunted to unimportant committees, they charged.

Orrock said the protest and SR 55 are related. Unterman’s is the No. 2 signature on the bill. “Renee didn’t hesitate to add her name,” the bill’s author said. “I won’t be the first time or the last that Senator Unterman and I have partnered to stand up for women,” she said. “We certainly don’t agree on everything, but she has an underlying commitment to women having a place at the table.”

The alliance won’t be ready for its photograph next week – delayed by attention given over to the Super Bowl.

“Obviously, I think that women should have equal rights with men. It’s overdue,” Kirkpatrick said this morning. “There’s no hidden agenda.”

But Unterman drew a sharp line between the opening days of the session and her decision to sign onto SR 55. “I didn’t ask to be put in this position of being the poster child of the women’s movement, for Republicans. But I have very strong faith, and I think God has put me in this position,” said Unterman, who considers herself estranged from her male GOP colleagues. “I don’t have a home anymore. I don’t go to my caucus meetings anymore. I just don’t fit in.”

The ERA measure is being introduced into the state Senate only weeks after U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ben. Cardin, D-Md., introduced legislation to clarify whether the Equal Rights Amendment can be ratified 47 years after Congress passed it on to the states for approval. From their op-ed in the Washington Post:

The original deadline for ERA ratification was not in the amendment itself but only in the text of the joint resolution proposing the amendment. This is to say the amendment itself has no arbitrary deadline attached.

Whether on purpose or not, Congress handcuffed itself at the time it passed the ERA. But this Congress can and should easily amend that language to remove the deadline for ratification.

***

When Gov. Brian Kemp sat down with Chuck Williams of WRLB-TV on Monday, Williams brought up a topic we’ve touched on before – the fact that Kemp is the first governor of Georgia without a Democratic backstory.

In that interview, Kemp identified state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the longest-serving lawmaker in the Capitol, as his guide in securing Democratic support for his proposals.

“I worked with him when I was in the Legislature. I have no doubt that I can work with Calvin Smyre. Also, my wife’s father served with him. They knew each other well. She’s a big fan of Calvin Smyre, too. As he told me, he’s the glue that holds things together around here,” Kemp said.

The new governor said his family was making a slow transition into the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta, given that he has two daughters still attending high school in Athens.

***

Maybe we jinxed it. We’ve told you that GOP leaders at the state Capitol have encouraged rank-and-file lawmakers to hold off on most controversial proposals until after the Super Bowl.

But one newcomer may have jumped the gun.

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican elected in 2017, introduced House Bill 53. He dubbed it the “Student and Educator Faith Protection Act.” 

It is not a “religious liberty” measure, or at least not directly modeled after the 1993 legislation that has sparked a perennial debate in the statehouse. Still, opponents say it evokes some of the same themes.

The measure claims that public schools are threatened by “out of state special interest groups” that aim to stifle freedom of religion. It requires school faculty to take a neutral position toward religion, and says employees are “entitled to robust protections for their religious expression.”

It’s already provoked criticism. Maggie Garrett of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State told Project Q the bill seems designed to “force public school prayer in every public school in Georgia.” 

Some context here: Carpenter has little clout in the Legislature and House Speaker David Ralston has loudly criticized “religious liberty” efforts. His allies say this measure doesn’t directly broach that topic but that it’s still unlikely to pass.

Still, Carpenter has eight other co-sponsors, including House Transportation Committee chair Kevin Tanner and Mack Jackson, a Democrat.

***

For every boon, there’s a consequence. In December, the Gainesville and Hall County Development Authority agreed to sell a 108-site to the state for $5.6 million, for the construction of an “inland port” designed to take truck traffic off Georgia interstates.

The Gainesville Times reports that the county’s planning commission had scheduled a Feb. 4 meeting to take up the new development, until this particular fact was realized about the new owner:

“The Georgia Port Authority is a state entity, and any state government facilities or state entities are not subject to local zoning ordinances,” Srikanth Yamala, the county’s planning director, said.

***

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger might have lost his bid to be the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee last year, but he’ll be on the front lines of another high-stakes government spending fight in the weeks ahead. 

The six-term congressman, a close ally of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, was appointed to be one of eight Republican members on the bipartisan House-Senate panel tasked with negotiating money for President Trump’s signature border wall. He said he hoped the conference committee could find ways to “secure our border with reasonable, sound & just measures.” 

***
It was pretty obvious before, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has now included U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in its list of top targets ahead of 2020. The Lawrenceville resident was one of 33 Republicans, many from fast-changing suburban districts, whom the DCCC sees as especially vulnerable over the next two years.

Woodall has already drawn one Democratic challenger: Snellville attorney Marqus Cole recently announced his candidacy. Several other prominent Democrats are also eyeing the Seventh District seat. 

Among them, naturally, is Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Georgia State academic who came within 500 or so votes of defeating Woodall last November.

***

Ralph Lancaster, the no-nonsense attorney who presided over Florida's water rights case against Georgia as the Supreme Court's "special master," died last week at the age of 88, according to Maine media outlets. Lancaster's recommendation that justices dismiss Florida's case thrilled Georgia interests. The court ultimately rebuffed his recommendation and appointed a new "special master" for a second round of water proceedings last summer.

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