11/20/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- People gather inside the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage before the start of the MSNBC/The Washington Post Democratic Presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios, Wednesday, November 20, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Photo: Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The Jolt: Who won the debate? Tyler Perry and Georgia’s film industry

Joe Biden had his moments, some very good and others a little dicey. Kamala Harris put in a strong performance. Pete Buttigieg did well, as did Amy Klobuchar. And in the first 20 minutes, it seemed that no one could get into the camera frame but Elizabeth Warren.

But far and away, the big winner in Wednesday’s debate of Democratic presidential debates in Atlanta was Tyler Perry and Georgia’s surging TV and film industry.

By playing host to the cream of the nation’s Democratic elite, Perry and his crew may have just guaranteed that they won’t be held hostage when the issue of abortion rears its head again in Georgia. That’s likely to be early next year, when the new law to bar most abortions in the state is expected to go to trial.

Save for a few quick crowd shots, we do not know who filled the 1,000 white folding chairs in the Oprah Winfrey sound stage last night. In terms of maximum media exposure and maximum privacy, Tyler Perry Studios was a perfect site. Several hundred reporters, photographers, and TV crew members were kept corralled in the adjacent Whoopi Goldberg sound stage – blind to the coming and going of VIPs.

But it is easy to surmise that the debate crowd included a large dose of the nation’s African-American elite, political and economic, celebrating Tyler Perry and his acreage as a crown jewel of black entrepreneurship.

And that is the point. When one has a crown jewel, one protects it. One doesn’t pawn it whenever an actor or director on the West Coast gets upset – even over something as important as a woman’s right to control her own body. This was Stacey Abrams’ thrust during her visit to Los Angeles last spring, after House Bill 481 had been signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Wednesday’s debate put an exclamation point on the message.

The Perry studio complex, located on ground that was once Fort McPherson, stands within the state Senate district of Nikema Williams, who now chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“I’ve always been of the mindset that this represents the diversity of our state. And this is part of the reason our electorate is growing,” Williams said of the Perry complex, just before the start of last night’s debate. More from Williams:

“I want to highlight that the Democratic party is here at Tyler Perry studios, representing the changing electorate in our state and the film industry. Because if the film industry leaves here, then that does not bode well for the electorate that we’re reaching, the diversity in this state.

“We need the industry here. This is at the core of who we are as a party.”

And if that’s the case, it’s not something to be sacrificed lightly.

***

In political terms, more important than the Democratic debate in Atlanta was the decision by President Donald Trump to rip his eyes away from the U.S. House impeachment hearing – and urge Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint U.S. Rep. Doug Collins as a Senate replacement for the retiring Johnny Isakson:

The call, described by three high-level GOP officials, was part of a dramatic increase in pressure from Collins’ allies that raises the possibility of a bitter Republican clash over the race.

It’s the second time in two weeks that Trump directly appealed Kemp to appoint Collins, who was long considered a top contender to fill U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat before a multimillionaire financial executive applied.

Kelly Loeffler submitted her application hours before the Monday deadline, apparently scrambling Collins’ calculations. Loeffler, a financial executive who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA franchise, is widely considered by GOP insiders to be Kemp’s favorite for the coveted post.

Earlier in the day, in an interview with GPB “Political Rewind” host Bill Nigut, U.S. Sen. David Perdue expressed on-the-record patience with what has become a two-month process. But the junior senator also underlined why he has a vested interest:

“You’ve got several avenues you can go. You can break the gender gap, you can break a racial barrier. We’ve got sitting congressmen who are candidates. We’ve got a long list of qualified candidates.

“Here’s the bottom line – whoever the governor picks will be my running mate. We’re going to expose this socialist agenda for what it really is – and take that to the people of Georgia and let them decide.”

This Twitter message from U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., illustrates the pressure that Governor Kemp now faces:

@BrianKempGA - Its beyond dispute that u won the primary due to @realDonaldTrump Do what you *know directly* is the right thing & appoint @RepDougCollins to the Senate. 

Doug can be a needed champ for POTUS in the Senate Day 1.

No time for on the job impeachment training.

Conservative radio pundit Hugh Hewitt, whose broadcast is nationally syndicated, quickly upped the pressure Monday afternoon. In an interview with Collins, Hewitt endorsed Trump’s thinking, again citing the likelihood that the president will soon be impeached by House Democrats. Said Hewitt:

“I have stayed out of this, but now I am convinced that with the prospect of a long trial in the Senate in the offing, that the country is best served if Governor Kemp puts Doug Collins into the Senate. And I mean no disrespect to the other people who want to be senator… But I do look at this, and I think to myself if we go to a long trial, we need to know someone who knows every name and not confuse the jobs, not confuse the chain of command, not confuse the changing allegations.”

But this is the exchange in the transcript that caught our eye:

Hewitt: “And Congressman Collins, have you had this conversation with Governor Kemp -- about why no matter how many great candidates there are in Georgia, there’s only one who’s been ranking member on Judiciary who can go and serve this post in the Senate the way it needs to be served?”

Collins: “Well, at this time, I would assume that the Governor will get with me. He’s not got with me at this point, so we’ll see if he chooses to.”

***

On the bright side for Gov. Brian Kemp, as several Democratic candidates in Wednesday’s debate asserted the opposite, Politifact repeated its finding that it’s not possible to prove whether “any election law or policy in Georgia” forced Stacey Abrams narrow loss to Kemp last year:

Abrams lost by almost 55,000 votes in a race with record turnout for a midterm race, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles S. Bullock. Black turnout in 2018 actually slightly exceeded that in 2016, he said.

"The claim is a good talking point, but the evidence is missing," he said.

Kemp made some controversial decisions that probably hurt Democrats overall, but it’s difficult to determine exactly how many people were prevented from voting, Daniel P. Tokaji, who teaches election law at Ohio State University, told PolitiFact.

***

Call it the trifecta: Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel has already landed the support of both Georgia’s U.S. senators. Her campaign said Thursday she now has the backing of Gov. Brian Kemp as she plots a rematch against Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta.

***

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson told celebrity gossip website TMZ that he doesn’t like the way the NFL continues to treat Colin Kaepernick and he thinks it may be time for the government to step in. 

"It's possible that Congress can do something," Johnson, a Democrat from Lithonia, said. "Congress oversees the anti-trust exemption that we gave the NFL. The NFL is doing quite well with that anti-trust exemption, maybe it's time for us to take a fresh look at it."

Just last weekend, Kaepernick traveled to Metro Atlanta to show off his skills during in hopes an NFL team might sign him after three years of inactivity he says is a result of being blackballed for his political views. So far, however, the quarterback remains unsigned.

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