200309-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp answers a question in his ceremonial office at the State Capitol where he gave an update on Covid-19 in Georgia on Monday afternoon March 9, 2020. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray
Photo: Ben@bengray.com/Ben Gray

The Jolt: With coronavirus outbreak, competence is back in vogue

It most likely was not intended as a rebuke, but the absence was glaring.

On Monday evening, Gov. Brian Kemp and a line of expert bureaucrats gave a detailed, 30-minute update on the spread of the coronavirus in Georgia.

Only one indirect reference to the president of the United States was made. The name of Donald Trump was never uttered – not by Kemp, nor any of the men or women who followed him to the microphone.

In the face of a global epidemic and worrisome shudders from Wall Street, competence has suddenly become the coin of the realm. Incompetency can be contagious. And the people in the governor’s ceremonial office went to great lengths to show they had not been infected.

Last Friday, during his visit to the Atlanta headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trump declared that “anybody that wants a test can get a test” for the virus. Which had to be walked back. The president spoke of his remarkable capacity for understanding scientific matters, thanks to an uncle who had taught at MIT.

Trump said that he wouldn’t object to allowing that infected ocean liner to dock at a California port (which it did on Monday), but he would rather it didn’t – “because I like the numbers being where they are.”

Everything that the CDC press conference was, the one at the state Capitol wasn’t.

Kemp read slowly from a prepared text. Bad news wasn’t avoided.

“From the very beginning, we have promised to be transparent and keep Georgians informed. That’s why we’re telling everyone now that the national message is starting to change, and we need the public to continue to follow important guidance,” the governor said. “We are definitely going to see more cases in Georgia.”

The governor identified the locality of all those judged infected so far. For many, “the source of infection is unknown at this time.”

Kemp gave several mentions to Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has put in charge of the federal response. The Republican governor spoke of “our federal partners,” and praised his team’s “accessibility to the administration.”

The governor made this bare reference to Trump and the CDC event: ”I think he was pleased by what he saw on Friday.”

Details were offered in abundance. How many trailers were being sent to Hard Labor Creek State Park to serve as temporary housing for some of those infected? Seven, said Homer Bryson, director of GEMA.

What was the quarantine housing capacity at Dobbins Air Reserve Base? Why, 151 evacuees, said Major Gen. Tom Carden, the state’s adjutant general.

In Washington, updates that feature President Trump are rife with sycophancy, praising him for his far-reaching wisdom.

On Monday, Kemp received compliments, too. But of a different sort. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, expressed her pride in the governor’s attitude toward evacuees from the Grand Princess cruise ship. Kemp had not referred to them as numbers, but as “guests” and fellow Georgians.

One thing did raise an eyebrow at the Kemp press conference. The governor was asked if he was worried about his contact with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who was at the CDC event – and on Monday placed himself in quarantine after being told he had been in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus 11 days earlier.

Kemp deferred to Dr. Cherie Drenzek, the state epidemiologist. “Individuals that are not showing symptoms of Covid-19 disease do not pose risks,” she said.

That may be mostly true. But this is a line from the CDC website:

Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Our AJC colleague Jeremy Redmon has more details about Monday’s press conference here.

***

The Rev. Raphael Warnock’s two most important allies in his bid for the U.S. Senate are standing by him, after his estranged wife accused him of running over her foot with his car during a dispute over their children. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Stacey Abrams both said they’re still backing the Atlanta pastor after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution disclosed the domestic dispute

“We’re supporting Reverend Warnock because he’ll continue to be a champion for all Georgians in the Senate,” said Lauren Passalacqua, the DSCC spokeswoman. “We respect the Warnock family’s privacy and hope others show them the same courtesy.” 

Added Abrams’ top aide Lauren Groh-Wargo: “We are fully behind Reverend Warnock.” 

The Democrat was accused by his wife days before he filed paperwork to officially seek the office.

Warnock wasn’t charged, And the investigating Atlanta police officer said in the report that medical officials didn’t find visible signs of injury to the foot that his wife said was struck by the vehicle. 

Warnock flatly denied the allegation that he harmed his estranged wife, telling the AJC in an interview that “it didn’t happen.”

***

Democratic voters in six states head to the polls today to choose between three remaining candidates for the presidential nomination. But it’s really down to two: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

There are 352 delegates at stake during today’s primaries in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington, and some news outlets have started calling it a “mini” Super Tuesday.

Sanders needs to do well tonight, especially in Michigan, if he hopes to retake the delegate lead from Biden. Recent polls have shown that will be a heavy lift for the senator from Vermont.

***

Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies blocked an attempt to turn the race for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s race from a free-for-all November contest to a May primary. But at least one county still intends to put it on the ballot.

Floyd County’s Republican Party sent word that it will add a series of four questions on its May 19 ballot focused on the matchup between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. 

They ask if local Republicans are more likely to vote for Collins, Loeffler, another candidate or are still undecided about the November special election. It’s the first county we’ve heard that will hold such a vote, and we wonder if others follow.

***

Over at WABE (90.1 FM), Emma Hurt had a smart interview with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, peppering her with questions about her use of a private jet for campaign stops and allegations that she funneled money into an outside group’s coffers to secure an endorsement. Here’s a taste:

Hurt: You’re being attacked by [your Republican opponent] Rep. Doug Collins right now for spending your own money on lots of things, like a private jet for example. I wonder how you respond to that broad attack?

Loeffler: Well, it’s not surprising to be attacked for success. But it’s sad because I have achieved success in life, but it’s so far from where I started. And I’m really not focused on those attacks because I’ve lived the American dream and I’m working hard to preserve and protect that for others who deserve the same chance. ... I’m here fighting for freedom, fighting against socialism. And that’s my sole focus. So I’m staying positive. And I know that the investments I’m making in my campaign are also investments in freedom.

***

Our AJC colleague Sarah Kallis caught up with John Barge, the former school superintendent and unsuccessful gubernatorial contender who is now one of a slew of Republicans running for Georgia’s 14th District, now held by U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger. 

“My priority would be to represent the people of northwest Georgia and most of them support President Trump as do I,” he said.

He highlighted his friction with the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 when he tried to request waivers for the No Child Left Behind program. He was eventually granted those waivers, but he said that struggle helped motivate him to run for Congress.

“I’ve been to Washington and I’ve been fed up with bureaucrats in Washington and I’ve fought them for the people of Georgia and I’ve won,” he said.

***

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor in Georgia, have penned a joint column that calls for a new wave of voter protections. The essay, tied to Saturday’s 55th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights in Selma, was published in the Atlanta Daily World and elsewhere.

“Today, in state after state, Republicans are working to purge voter rolls, draw partisan district lines, and limit the impact of minority voters,” the pair wrote. “Democrats have to fight back in every possible way.”

Specifically, Schumer and Abrams called for the Senate to embrace a bill already passed in the House. The Voting Rights Advancement Act would re-establish federal oversight of voting laws in certain states, including Georgia, which was ended by a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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