Gov.-elect Deal's Washington ties could help state

WASHINGTON -- On the campaign trail, former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal downplayed his ties to Washington -- understandably so given voter frustration with Congress and the Obama administration.

Now that he's the incoming governor, Deal and his former colleagues in Washington say his history and connections here could help the state immensely when it comes to federal funding and working on issues such as the fight over health care legislation, the dredging of the Port of Savannah and the tri-state water war.

"I don't think you can measure the importance -- it's just extremely important that Nathan was here for 16 to 18 years," U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said.

Along with most of the rest of the state's Republican delegation to Washington, Chambliss was on hand Thursday to greet Georgia's incoming governor as he made a postelection visit back to Washington.

Deal was part of a group of nearly 25 incoming governors who met Thursday with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and top White House officials before he took a side trip to his old stomping grounds on Capitol Hill.

At the meeting, held in Blair House across from the White House, Deal said he and other incoming governors expressed their concerns about implementing the federal health legislation -- Georgia is one of 20 states that are suing the federal government claiming the law is unconstitutional. Other topics included immigration and help with state budget shortfalls, Deal said.

"It was a very interesting session," he said. "It reminded me of some of our [congressional] committee hearings here ... although we were on their home turf."

Obama asked the incoming governors to put the elections and partisanship behind them, and he pledged to answer their requests when they call Washington for help.

"We have just had a very vigorously contested election, but the election is over," Obama said. "And now I think it’s time for all of us to make sure that we’re working together. I am a very proud Democrat, as some of you in the room are -- although not as many as I had expected. Some of you are very proud Republicans. But we’re all prouder to be Americans."

Obama said there will certainly be times when states and federal government disagree -- such as with Georgia's stance on health care legislation -- but there also are times when national standards need to be enforced, he added.

"There are going to be times where we do believe that having basic national standards are going to be important; that there are certain things that we as a country, we as a people, aspire to, and that we need to maintain some consistency across the states," Obama said.

The last time Georgia had a governor who had previously served in Congress was in the 1880s -- and that wasn't for long, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens represented Georgia in the U.S. House from 1843 to 1859 before becoming Georgia's 50th governor in 1882.

Stephens' situation was unusual. He also had been vice president of the Confederate States of America, and he died just a few months after becoming Georgia's governor.

Other states have governors who have previously served in Congress. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, for instance, served in the U.S. House for six years before moving into the governor's mansion.

For Georgia's representatives in Congress, just having one of their own in the governor's office could be a refreshing change.

The relationship between Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and Georgia's congressional delegation has on occasion been strained, to say the least -- with both Democrats and fellow Republicans.

"I've had my disagreements with Governor Perdue over the years -- that's to be expected," Chambliss said.

"It's not that I ever called [Perdue] when he didn't return my call, but I've got Nathan's e-mail, his cell phone number, his home number ... and I know he'd welcome a phone call," Chambliss said.

Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta, one of Deal's closest friends in Washington, said it's not just about having the governor's ear when they need it.

"It's his collegiality and civility working with people," Gingrey said. "And Nathan can do it on both sides of the aisle -- he used to be in the Democratic Party, and he's still got friends there."

That said, none of Georgia's congressional Democrats were present at an impromptu news conference Deal and congressional Republicans held Thursday at a House office building.

Deal didn't address the absence of his former Democratic colleagues, but he said he did say hello to one, Rep. John Barrow of Savannah, earlier in the day.

For Republican members of the U.S. House, close ties to the Republican governor could prove key at election time, too.

Georgia is about to go through the redistricting process to decide where a new 14th congressional district will be drawn, as well as how existing districts will be determined.

While the Georgia Assembly has jurisdiction over the process, the governor can veto it. If incumbent Republicans don't like how the districts are drawn, they could turn to Deal for help, UGA's Bullock said.

"There may be a degree of reciprocity here," Bullock said.

But will Deal be able to leverage his Washington ties to benefit Georgia financially or otherwise?

"The short answer to your question is no," said Jeff Gulati, an associate political science professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

Though it’s a plausible assumption, there's little evidence historically or elsewhere that congressmen-turned-governors are more effective in luring federal funds to their states, Gulati added.

Emory University professor Merle Black concurred.

"I'm not sure it matters all that much" when it comes to federal funds, Black said.

"But Deal knows a whole lot more [than past governors] about how Washington works," Black said, "and that's knowledge that might become very useful."