Gov. Brian Kemp at last month’s state GOP convention in Savannah. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: With two appointments, Brian Kemp tries to widen the GOP tent

Gov. Brian Kemp, who only a year ago bragged that he had a pickup truck big enough to round up “criminal illegals” all by himself, on Wednesday named a Mexican-born police chief to become interim insurance commissioner -- and thus the first Hispanic to serve as a state constitutional officer.

For good measure, on the same day, Kemp named an African-American woman as Cobb County district attorney. For a Georgia GOP that becomes more demographically challenged with each election cycle, both moves are important.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Last month, a familiar name landed on a short-list for a state superior court judgeship: DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez. 

Lopez had already been passed over for a spot on the federal bench when U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., torpedoed the nomination because he was “uncomfortable” with Lopez’ participation with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

GALEO’s advocacy on behalf of those in the country illegally, and the group’s opposition to state legislation cracking down on the undocumented, disqualified Lopez, his fiercest critics argued.

It may have cost Lopez that state superior court job, too. After those same critics -- including Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren -- again raised the GALEO issue, Kemp went in another direction.

(The governor picked Shondeana Morris, a state court judge and former prosecutor, for the role instead. She’s also one of several black women he’s appointed since taking office.)

Then came Wednesday’s decision to tap Doraville Police Chief John King as the interim insurance commissioner -- while a suspended-but-still-on-the-payroll Jim Beck defends himself from some very serious federal fraud charges.

Kemp praised King’s military experience, his beat-cop grittiness. He called him a “war hero” and noted he would become Georgia’s first Hispanic constitutional officer.

Something Kemp did not mention was King’s association with GALEO. Jerry Gonzalez, the group’s director, described him as a “close friend” of the organization and said he has also been a guest speaker for a fundraising breakfast. 

“We look forward to working alongside his leadership and to building a better Georgia together,” he said, terming the appointment “historic.” And from the GALEO press release:

As police chief, King worked tirelessly to build strong relationships with his diverse community in Doraville by creating and implementing several youth education, crime-prevention programs, as well as prioritizing linguistic inclusion within his police force. King worked to hire bilingual officers, and he placed numerous languages on his fleet of police cars.

Before the Lopez ordeal, GALEO had routinely attracted high-profile Republican officials to its gatherings, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens. Some of those visits dried up after the judicial tussle. 

But King’s appointment could mean the end of the Georgia GOP’s ostracization of the group – a necessary first step if Republicans intend to court Hispanic votes in the future. 

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On Wednesday, as mentioned above, Governor Kemp also named Cobb County’s chief magistrate court judge as district attorney — the first African-American and first woman to hold that post in Cobb.

Joyette Holmes replaces Vic Reynolds, whom Kemp named as director of the GBI earlier this year. That frees John Melvin, chief assistant D.A. under Reynolds, to follow his old boss to the GBI. Melvin had been acting district attorney.

In the last two election cycles, Cobb County has become something other than a reliable GOP bastion. Democrat Stacey Abrams won the county with 54 percent of the vote last November. Further, an April poll by the AJC showed that, while his numbers have improved, Kemp still struggles among black and female voters.

In 2020, every countywide office – currently all held by Republicans -- will be on the ballot. That will now include Holmes.

Though it might have taken a bit of stalling, Kemp could have moved in another direction. In 2018, the Legislature passed HB 907, a measure that created this wrinkle in the body politic:

If a governor fills a vacant district attorney position within six months of a term’s end, the impending vote is delayed until the following general election — “even if such period of time extends beyond the unexpired term of the prior district attorney.”

In other words, had Kemp delayed filling the vacancy until next May, the election for Cobb County district attorney would have been put off until November 2022.

So the decision to put an African-American woman on the Cobb GOP ticket was a deliberate one, intended to help Republicans survive what could be a tough 2020.

***

We try to steer clear of the cable TV news traffic, but sometimes developments in Washington are simply too strange to ignore. In today’s Washington Post, George Conway, husband to Kellyanne Conway – one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers, is the co-author of an op-ed piece that includes this passage:

On Tuesday, Trump gave us direct evidence of his contempt toward the most foundational precept of our democracy — that no person, not even the president, is above the law. He filed a brief in the nation’s second-most-important court that takes the position that Congress cannot investigate the president, except possibly in impeachment proceedings.

It’s a spectacularly anti-constitutional brief, and anyone who harbors such attitudes toward our Constitution’s architecture is not fit for office. Trump’s brief is nothing if not an invitation to commencing impeachment proceedings that, for reasons set out in the Mueller report, should have already commenced.

***
Another branch of Sonny Perdue’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has opted to unionize. Employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture voted 137 to 2 earlier this week to be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees. The agency is one of two that Perdue wants to relocate out of Washington. Employees of the second, the Economic Research Service, voted to form a union last month. The former Georgia governor has pledged to work with the new union “just as we work with all USDA employees,” according to The Washington Post.

***

Senators cleared a third Trump administration pick for the Atlanta-based federal district court yesterday afternoon. The chamber voted 85 to 11 to confirm DeKalb County Superior Court Judge J.P. Boulee. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to advance the nomination of Trump’s fourth nominee for the court, Atlanta lawyer Steven Grimberg, this morning.

***

Seth Clark has toiled behind the scenes as a Democratic operative for years, most recently as a strategist for Stacey Evans’ unsuccessful bid for governor and for House Minority Leader Bob Trammell.

Now he’s emerging from the shadows, so to speak, to mount his own campaign for a non-partisan seat on the Macon-Bibb County Commission. 

He unveiled his run with a video that features a vintage truck he spent years rebuilding -- and a quote from Little Richard. It’s one of the better introductions we’ve seen this cycle.

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