Two tales of betrayal now drive the GOP race for governor

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, during the 2018 session of the Legislature. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

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State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, during the 2018 session of the Legislature. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

A sense of betrayal is one of the stronger emotions in politics, if not the strongest.

Two episodes, both involving trust abused or trust misused, are now driving the Republican race for governor. They are closely linked. You may know of one, but not the other.

On May 24, Clay Tippins, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate, walked into a conversation with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the man who had whupped him two days earlier by 16 points — but now needed Tippins’ endorsement for the upcoming runoff against Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Inside one of Tippins’ pockets was a smart phone set to “record.”

As anyone who had seen his TV ads could attest, Tippins is a former Navy SEAL, with some experience in interrogation. He led Cagle into a frank explanation of why, weeks earlier, he had pushed school-related legislation through the Senate over the objections of the defeated candidate’s uncle, Lindsey Tippins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

In the recording, Cagle admitted the legislation in question was “bad. ”

“It ain’t about public policy. It’s about (expletive) politics,” Cagle was recorded as saying. The runoff candidate went on to explain that the legislation was necessary to keep charter school backers from funneling millions of dollars into the campaign of a fourth GOP candidate for governor, former state senator Hunter Hill.

Two weeks later, the recording was made available to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News. Condemnation of Clay Tippins, for breaking the unwritten state Capitol code that protects private discourse, was immediate.

“I’ve had plenty of private, closed-door political discussions, and the fact that Casey Cagle had one doesn’t change my support for him to be governor,” said former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland, a Cagle supporter. “What I have changed my mind on is the character of the fourth-place finisher.”

But there’s another story of betrayal, during the closing days of the legislative session, that is essential to understanding the Cagle-Tippins recording. Two pieces of legislation were at play. One was House Bill 217, a bill to raise a cap on tax credits for private schools — a topic broached in the secret recording.

But more important to our story was HB 787, a measure to increase the amount of state money flowing to 20 state-approved, brick-and-mortar charter schools.

The House had passed HB 787 on Feb. 22, and when it arrived in the Senate, the measure was sent to Lindsey Tippins’ education committee. It would eventually pass the Senate, over the committee chairman’s objections.

“Lindsey Tippins stonewalled conservative reforms to expand education options,” said Scott Binkley, the Cagle campaign manager, as I prepared this column — a reference to HB 787. “Cagle worked with him as chairman but grew tired of getting blamed for the lack of progress, particularly on equal funding for public charter school students.”

This may be true, but it’s incomplete. And on Monday morning, Tippins contradicted many of the important parts.

We were in his living room. Lindsey Tippins is my state senator and my neighbor. He lives a short mile or two from my home in west Cobb County. He is a conservative fellow, and is also — as I’ve written before — a man driven by data. Which has made him a skeptic when it comes to mass transit — and charter schools.

On March 19, Day 38 of a 40-day session, Tippins said he walked into the lieutenant governor’s office with a spreadsheet to explain why he didn’t intend move HB 787 out of his committee.

Under the current state formula, Tippins said, funding for those 20 state-authorized, brick-and-mortar charter schools (virtual schools are another matter) stands at $8,415 per pupil — more than the combined state and local spending per student in 46 of 180 Georgia public school districts. Including Gwinnett County.

HB 787 would increase the per-pupil spending to $8,816 — more than the combined state and local spending per student in 96 Georgia school districts.

“My question was, how do you explain this?” said Lindsey Tippins, a former member of the Cobb County school board. To spend the equivalent on all other public schools in Georgia — who are required to take all comers — would run to more than $500 million a year.

“Well, I’ve got to have the bill,” Tippins quoted the lieutenant governor as saying. “I said, ‘I can’t pass it.’”

Tippins described what came next: “He said, ‘Look, this is the deal.’ He said, ‘I’ve got to do something for charter schools.’ He said, ‘The Walton Family Foundation is fixing to put $2 million in Hunter Hill’s campaign. And he said, ‘If this bill passes, I’ll get it in mine.’ He didn’t go into any details, but that was my understanding.”

So according to the Cobb County senator, Cagle wasn’t just attempting to block funding for a gubernatorial rival, as previously reported, but was seeking to increase his own. (We’ve seen no documentation of money changing hands. The director of the Walton Education Coalition, a political arm of the Walton family, said such talk is “unfounded.”)

“It was at that point I told him I’d rather be shot doing what was right, than be lauded for doing what I believed to be wrong,” Lindsey Tippins said. “I said, if you’ve got to have this bill, you’re going to do it without me.”

The lieutenant governor refused Tippins’ resignation as chairman, and instead asked him to work on a compromise with his legal counsel, Irene Munn. That didn’t work, and Tippins was quickly in Cagle’s office to again offer his resignation — this time in writing.

“I said, ‘There ain’t no other way to handle it. This is the clearest way to do it. You get what you want, I’m not compromised,’” Tippins said.

With that, Cagle abruptly changed course, Tippins said. “(Expletive) them and their money,” he quoted the lieutenant governor as saying. “I’m not going to disrespect my committee chairman. You draw the bill that you’re comfortable with, and that’s what we’ll go with.”

In Tippins’ narrative, this display of bravado was the moment of betrayal by “a very, very good friend.” To understand, bear with me for a more few lines.

“When he told me that, to fix the bill the way I wanted it — when I left his office I felt like a thousand-pound weight had been taken off of me. I thought, ‘This is the guy I’ve known,’” the senator said.

Tippins quickly turned out a new version of HB 787, one that tied state financing of state-approved charter schools to performance. His committee passed it unanimously.

But on the Senate floor, the bill was quickly amended. Pretty much everything Tippins had objected to was restored, and HB 787 passed. Tippins was the only Republican to vote no.

This is why Tippins feels used, played: Had he not moved the bill out of his committee, chances are it would have died there. Had he not been dissuaded from resigning as chairman, he wouldn’t have been a party to its eventual approval. Cagle had not only gotten his way, but made Tippins complicit in passing a bill he opposed — one he understood to be poor policy, but a fine campaign-fund generator.

“Had I known that was coming down the pike, I would never have called the bill,” Tippins said. “What I haven’t been able to say until now was, he told me he’d go with however I fixed it.”

An hour or so earlier, the first question I had asked Tippins was whether he knew beforehand that his nephew, candidate Clay Tippins, was going to record his conversation with Cagle.

The senator said his nephew had told him of his intentions a day earlier, but that he didn’t know what Clay Tippins would do with the information.

I asked him if he agreed with his colleagues’ condemnations of his nephew’s actions. “There are people who say that was a foul ball. I’m not sure I agree with that,” Lindsey Tippins said. “If you’re in politics, you say what you say and you stay with it. I know what Casey told me.”

Tippins maxed out his contributions to both Cagle and his nephew in the GOP primary. He said he will not make an endorsement in the GOP runoff for governor.