On MLK Day, a pledge to honor the civil rights leader at the statehouse

JANUARY 20, 2014 ATLANTA Governor Nathan Deal talks with Dr Christine King Farris following his remarks.The 46th annual Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, January 20, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

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JANUARY 20, 2014 ATLANTA Governor Nathan Deal talks with Dr Christine King Farris following his remarks.The 46th annual Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, January 20, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Gov. Nathan Deal pledged on Monday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. by putting his name on the statehouse grounds, a move that was wrapped in political symbolism and a calculated nod toward the state's changing demographics.

The governor triggered new calls to honor the civil rights icon when he cited safety issues in October for removing the statue of a white supremacist politician from the capitol grounds. Deal stopped short of endorsing a specific plan Monday, but aides said it could involve adding a statue of the Nobel laureate on the statehouse grounds or naming a park to be built across the street in his memory.

“Not many states can boast a native son who has merited a national holiday. But we Georgians can,” Deal said at a ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor. “That’s why this year working with the General Assembly I’m committed to finding an appropriate way to honor Dr. King on our Capitol Hill.”

King’s physical presence at the statehouse is now limited to an oil portrait that’s flanked by a biographical display, and Democratic leaders have long pushed for a more prominent tribute to King on the capitol grounds. And the timely relocation of the statue of Tom Watson, a former U.S. senator and arch-segregationist, rekindled their push.

But some party leaders scoffed at Deal’s attempt as a transparent election ploy. State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who was also at Ebenezer, said King’s memory would be better served in other ways.

“With all due respect, if the governor really wanted to do a tribute to Dr. King’s memory, he would expand Medicaid,” Fort said, invoking the governor’s opposition to a key tenet of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul. “A statue can’t take you to the emergency room.”

The Republican governor is locked in a heated re-election battle against two fellow Republicans and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of the former president. The younger Carter, who was in the crowd, is hoping that energizing his party’s base of minorities and a push for independents can propel him to office.

Deal signed a sweeping immigration crackdown into law in 2011 and celebrated last year's ruling that undoes part of a voting law rooted in the civil rights era, stances that haven't endeared him to minority voters. At the same time, though, he has urged fellow Republicans to welcome newcomers, mindful that the growing numbers of minority voters could end the GOP's reign in Georgia.

The backbone of this appeal is an effort to position the GOP as the party of job creation to appeal to blacks and Hispanics who see the economy as their top priority. And he is pivoting toward a criminal justice overhaul he championed that aims to keep more low-level offenders out of Georgia's prison system, which locks up a disproportionate number of blacks.

“These reforms aren’t just good for former inmates and their families. It’s good for everyone in this beautiful church, everyone in this city, everyone in this state,” Deal said from Ebenezer’s pulpit. “We are not only saving lives, we are also saving tax dollars.”

As for appealing to Hispanics, the governor said after a breakfast with Latino leaders last week that he can blaze inroads “just by simply saying that we are wiling to be inclusive. And I think I have demonstrated I am willing to do so.”

The existential threat facing the GOP is no figment of Deal’s imagination. The governor often cites statistics that show 56 percent of students in Georgia’s public schools are non-whites, and the proportion of white voters has steadily shrunk in the last decade, hovering at 61 percent in 2012, while the percentage of Hispanic voters and blacks have swelled.

Deal and his allies have plenty of work to do to sway minorities who have long rewarded Democrats with near-monolithic support.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this month showed non-white voters gave the governor a 45 percent approval rating, below the 54 percent overall approval rating. A solid majority of non-whites are unsatisfied with the state's direction and roughly two-thirds described Georgia's economy in negative terms.

(Carter, too, has some convincing to do. The Democrat earned the support of some 60 percent of non-whites in the AJC poll, a number he’ll need to significantly boost to pose a challenge to the incumbent.)

Deal’s strategists aren’t expecting Monday’s pledge to sway flocks of black voters. But his camp hopes it can position the Republican as the governor who successfully pressed to honor the civil rights leader at the Capitol more than 45 years after he was gunned down.

Symbolism only goes so far, though. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s lead preacher, put it this way after Deal spoke:

“Let’s build a monument,” he said. “But the monument ought to inspire us to build a better world.”

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