‘Solid’: Republican Brian Kemp plays up rural roots, business bonafides

Growing up, Brian Kemp spent days working on a farm outside Athens. Getting trampled by a 750-pound bovine in the cattle chute didn’t faze young Kemp, recalls his friend Mitch Malcolm. And when a pregnant cow died one freezing Christmas Eve, Kemp and Malcolm labored in the sleet for hours to pull the calf. It survived.

Kemp has held elected office for roughly 12 of the last 16 years but as he travels the state campaigning for governor, he is using those “everyman” credentials to win over voters.

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“He understands the hardships of making payroll,” said Malcolm, who would go on to work as a developer with Kemp. “Work would start about 7 a.m. Brian’s the guy who’s going to be there at 5:30 in the morning.”

"Nobody's going to outwork Brian Kemp."

Casey Cagle learned that the hard way. Earlier this year, the lieutenant governor appeared to have the GOP nomination for governor in the bag. But with the help of a series of controversial ads — and an embarrassing covert recording of Cagle - the 54-year-old secured President Donald Trump's endorsement and rode the latest anti-establishment wave to an upset win.

Republican candidate for governor Brian Kemp makes the rounds, greeting supporters, at a fish fry and rally at Griff Bowen’s Fish House in Rhine on Oct. 4. It was the third stop of the day on Kemp campaign trail, where hundreds of supporters gathered to hear the candidate speak. (RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

Now Kemp, a married father of three daughters, meets Democrat Stacey Abrams in the Nov. 6 contest to succeed two-term Gov. Nathan Deal. Polls have shown that despite Georgia’s strongly conservative leanings, the race is tight.

“We had to try to survive”

On a recent bus tour around the state, Kemp focused on topics like combating gang violence, boosting teacher pay and rural hospital tax credits, and increasing school safety. Long gone are two stars of the primary season ads: Kemp's gun collection and "Jake," the fictitious suitor of one of Kemp's daughters, who notes with a gulp that he has a "healthy respect for the Second Amendment." Those ads — which showed Kemp brandishing a shotgun and bragging of using his pickup truck to round up "criminal illegals" — won Kemp scores of critics. But Trump supporters loved his embrace of the politically incorrect. "Yep, I just said that," he says with a lopsided grin.

During his recent stump speech (delivered from an actual stump) at Appalachian Gun, Pawn & Range in Jasper, Kemp told supporters “to get some gas in that chainsaw, get your axe and mattock out and keep choppin’ wood.” At a stop in Ellijay, the secretary of state mentioned firearms only after prompting from the crowd.

“I started with a pickup truck, a shovel and a toolbox,” he said, laying out his small business bonafides.

“Your gun, too!” a supporter interjected.

“I had a gun in there, as well as a chainsaw,” Kemp said to applause.

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In fact, he had to save up a while for the chainsaw during the early days of his construction career, he said in an interview after one of his tour stops.

“I built two spec houses and then I started another one, and I couldn’t sell any of them,” he said. “I almost didn’t make it through all of that. Marty and I were living in a house in a little subdivision. So I finally told her one day, look, if we’re gonna go broke we might as well change our luck, move in one of the spec houses and see if maybe that’ll help it sell.”

The strategy worked, but it meant moving again after less than a month. Then again. And again.

“We were trying to sell everything we had to try to survive,” Kemp said.

Finally, they put down some roots. Wheels, actually.

“I bought a demo double wide mobile home and set it up and told her, ‘We’ll just live here a year to see how we like it,’” Kemp said. “Three years later we were still there.”

When their first child, Jarrett, now 19, was on the way, Marty Kemp told her husband: “You better start building me a house.’”

“I know first-hand how hard it is to start a business,” he said. “Those first few years are rough. I was working, literally, seven days a week to pay the bank and pay my bills and survive.”

"Work would start about 7 a.m. Brian's the guy who's going to be there at 5:30 in the morning. ... Nobody's going to outwork Brian Kemp." — Mitch Malcolm, friend of Kemp

Kemp has done well since those early days. He’s amassed a net worth of more than $5 million, mostly through real estate investments, records show.

But as his wealth has soared, some of his investments have gone sour. He is embroiled in a lawsuit over a loan he personally guaranteed for a now struggling agricultural business. Legal papers show he promised to cover about $10 million in loans for Hart AgStrong.

Kemp is being sued by a Toccoa businessman who says he invested in the Bowersville-based canola processor at Kemp’s urging and was never paid back the $500,000 he’s owed. Kemp’s campaign has downplayed the significance of the suit, filed against him saying he was just one of several investors in the company.

“He’s a rock”

A fourth-generation University of Georgia graduate, Kemp would probably bleed red and black if you stuck him with a hatpin. Business and farming runs through his family tree more so than politics, with some notable exceptions.

His grandfather, the late Julian H. Cox Sr., and father-in-law, the late Bob Argo, were Georgia legislators. His forebears include Revolutionary War Major John Habersham, a member of the board of trustees that established UGA, and Joseph Habersham (for whom Habersham County is named), who was Savannah’s mayor in the 1790s and George Washington’s appointed postmaster general.

Brian Kemp secured the GOP nomination for governor with the help of aggressive advertising, an endorsement by President Donald Trump and a few notable miscues by his opponent Casey Cagle. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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People who have known him the longest have two things in common. They pronounce his name with one syllable - Brine - and repeatedly use the word "solid."

“There’s no other friend I’ve ever had who’s as solid as Brian,” said Daniel Dooley, son of University of Georgia coaching legend Vince Dooley and brother of Derek Dooley, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the University of Missouri. “Brian would go on vacations with us. He was like the other brother.”

Coach Dooley was famous for getting the boys up and out at the crack of dark for fishing trips, then monitoring their progress until he deemed their haul sufficient.

“When you fish with Dad he can take anything that’s supposed to be fun and turn it into a job,” the younger Dooley mused.

Kemp didn’t mind the rigor. He and Daniel Dooley played football together for the acclaimed late Coach Billy Henderson at Clarke Central High School and lived together their final year at UGA, where Kemp majored in agriculture.

“I had to get out of the group I was living with. I needed more structure,” Dooley said. “He was like Mother Hubbard.”

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After school, Kemp married Marty Argo and the two have been together for 24 years (Their other daughters are Lucy, 17, and Amy Porter, 16).

His own parents divorced when he was 13. Kemp’s sister, 11 at the time, remembers her older brother helping her weather the transition.

“We didn’t see our dad a lot,” Julie Kemp Rief said. Their mother and stepfather still live in Athens and their father, William L. Kemp II, who worked in real estate and finance, died in 2006. At the end, Rief said, “We weren’t that close but we were there. That was bittersweet.”

Once again, she leaned on her brother.

“Brian was always there. He’s a rock,” she said. “Family is first. When his three girls were all in high school they were all playing basketball. It didn’t matter if he was down in Tifton for the day. He would make sure he was going to be back home in Athens to make that basketball game.”

A Political Awakening

In Athens, Kemp quickly emerged as a civic leader. Doc Eldridge had just been elected a county commissioner when he learned that the Athens Rape Crisis Center’s building was a dilapidated wreck.

Eldridge turned to someone he thought could get things moving: Kemp.

“They showed up one Saturday with men and women, subs, trucks, materials,” said Eldridge of Kemp and his fellow Athens Area Home Builders members. “We brought that building up to code. It would not have happened so quickly had it not been for Brian Kemp and the home builders.”

Georgia Republican Gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp encourages his supporters to donate funds to his campaign by filling up a diesel gas can during a stop at Appalachian Gun, Pawn & Range in Jasper on Oct. 1. It was the first day of a weeklong bus tour where  his campaign visited 27 counties in 5 days. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“He was reasonable, he would listen,” said Eldridge, who was elected as a Democrat and later switched to the Republican party. “I found him to be very level-headed and he would always follow though on what he told me he was going to do.”

But as a home builder and developer, Kemp clashed repeatedly with county commission over zoning regulations, spurring an interest in politics. He launched a run for the state Senate seat, brashly challenging a Democratic incumbent at a time when that party ruled the state. The bet would pay off. Kemp was swept into office in 2002 as part of a GOP landslide in Georgia.

In 2006 he ran unsuccessfully for state agriculture commissioner. He’s been secretary of state since 2010.

Former Secretary of State Lewis Massey was Kemp’s Lambda Chi Alpha initiation advisor in college, and has a unique memento from their shared time there: a Bible signed by Kemp and his fellow pledges from the fall of 1982.

“In grateful appreciation of his guidance and instruction of our lives through one of the most reflective and meaningful quests of our lives,” reads the inscription.

“I distinctly remember Brian was a no-nonsense guy. He was serious and very committed,” said Massey, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998. “At one of the chapter meetings, I remember Brian saying, ‘As a fraternity we’re either advancing forward or going backward.’ I remember thinking, as a college student, that was pretty insightful.”

"I know first-hand how hard it is to start a business. Those first few years are rough. I was working, literally, seven days a week to pay the bank and pay my bills and survive." — Brian Kemp

Like Kemp, Massey became Georgia’s secretary of state initially by appointment; the late Zell Miller tapped him for the position after Max Cleland left to run for retiring Sam Nunn’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, now serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, appointed Kemp when Karen Handel stepped down to run for governor. She is now a congresswoman representing Georgia’s Sixth District.

When Kemp was being considered for the post, he connected with his college-days advisor.

“He’s the exact opposite of a know-it-all,” Massey said. “He’s a smart guy but knows that he needs advice along the way.”

As secretary of state, Kemp is credited with implementing a new online voter registration system and mobile apps that helped hundreds of thousands of Georgians become new voters.

But critics say he also launched voter fraud investigations as a way to suppress minority voting, a claim he rejects. Kemp was at the helm when a massive data breach released the Social Security numbers and other private information of more than 6 million voters to 12 organizations, including state political parties and news media. He blamed a clerical error, fired an IT staffer and offered credit monitoring.

Additionally, The AJC has reported that he's raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same people he regulates.

That gives someone like Sasha Benefield pause.

GOP candidate for governor Brian Kemp takes questions from reporters in front of the Kemp campaign bus, after speaking to supporters in Perry. Kemp’s campaign style hasn’t relied on celebrity appearances but plays up his rural roots. (RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

“I don’t think he’s representative of Georgia,” the 20-year-old political science major at Clayton State University said.

“I also feel that he’s very aggressive and doesn’t reflect the need for expansion of Medicaid and the need to just overall help Georgia. I think it’s more of like ‘Hey, let’s help Georgia’s industries’ rather than ‘Let’s help Georgia’s people.’”

Kemp and his supporters argue it is Abrams who is out of touch. While singer John Legend and rapper Yung Joc have lent their talents to Abrams’ campaign, Kemp has played up his rural roots. At the end of every campaign stop, he brings his daughter and bus driver in for comic relief.

“How we doin’ on fuel?” Kemp would shout, prompting the dire deadpan that the rig was running on fumes. Cue Lucy Kemp, who gamely carried a plastic diesel can turned donation bucket as a prop. Kemp reminded every audience that while he was spending time in places like Rhine (population about 400), Abrams was fundraising in New York or San Francisco.

“Let people know that we took the time to come to this community,” Kemp said. “We want Georgians to decide this election, not Nancy Pelosi. Not Elizabeth Warren. Not Maxine Waters.”

Vivian Childs of Warner Robins came to Kemp’s Houston County stop and says she’s voting for him to keep Georgia on the path it’s on.

“Georgia, to me, right now is winning. You never change the momentum when things are going in your favor,” she said.