Gov. Brian Kemp’s inaugural speech mixed a pledge to knit together voters still divided after a tumultuous election and a promise to pursue a broad range of campaign promises.
“President Pro Tem Miller, Speaker Pro Tem Jones, and members of the General Assembly, constitutional officers, members of the judiciary, members of the consular corps, Student Ambassadors, and my fellow Georgians:
“Our state is known around the world as a leader in logistics, cyber, aerospace and agriculture. Our universities and teams are recognized, just like our accents and Southern hospitality. With unprecedented growth and unmatched opportunity.”
- This line – the mention of Southern accents – drew immediate applause and evoked his “Georgians First” platform that was a dominant theme of his campaign.
“It’s a great time to be a Georgian. But we didn’t get here alone. Many went before us and charted the course. Men and women – some famous and others not – who poured the foundation for us to build.
“People like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Hank Aaron and Herschel Walker.”
- A die-hard Georgia football fan, Kemp included a mention of Walker, a legendary Bulldog tailback who was also a major supporter of his campaign. At this point, he also deviated from his prepared text and gave a shout-out to Walker’s coach, Vince Dooley, who was also a stalwart Kemp backer.
“Entertainers like Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Gregg Allman. Some of these hardworking Georgians splashed the front page of the paper and had their names in lights.
“Billy Henderson is a legendary coach in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. But he did more than win football games. Coach inspired generations of young Georgians. He lived by this motto: It can be done.”
- Henderson was a transformative figure in Kemp’s life, and he’ll try to weave him throughout the speech as an example of how a leader can bring together divided factions to build both success and a community.
“Raised in Macon, Billy Henderson was a winner. He was the most decorated athlete at his high school, played baseball and football at the University of Georgia, went on to play pro ball with the Cubs.
“Over the four decades of coaching, he won state championships in football, baseball, and even a state championship in swimming. Coach knew how to turn programs around. He also knew how to build on greatness.
“Thanks to the bold leadership of Governors Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal, Georgia weathered the Great Recession and emerged stronger than ever.”
- Kemp made a habit of bringing up both his Republican predecessors frequently on the campaign trail – and both supported him to varying degrees. Perdue, the state’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction, persuaded President Donald Trump to endorse Kemp days before the runoff.
- And Deal, who initially endorsed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, joined Kemp on the campaign trail in the final stretch of the race. Kemp often praised both of them, while making clear he would pursue his own policy initiatives. Case in point: his vow to crack down on violent offenders and sex trafficking. Deal spent much of his eight years seeking to divert non-violent offenders from prison sentences.
“Wages are rising and the unemployment rate is the lowest in 18 years. Thanks to the hard work of the legislature, Georgia is the top state for business – six years in a row. With our low taxes, a business-friendly government, and access to logistics hubs like the Port of Savannah and the Atlanta Airport, Georgia is the epicenter of job growth, the Hollywood of the South, and soon to be the Cyber Capitol of the world.”
- This has been a favorite talking point for Kemp: with a solid economy, he wants to continue many of the business policies in place, and is eager to mention the ranking from a specialty magazine that Deal often touted. Left unsaid is whether he’ll aggressively push a “religious liberty” measure that critics see as discriminatory - corporate powers have warned could lead to boycotts.
“Some think we’ve reached our peak. I disagree. As governor, I will build on our accomplishments. In the years to come, we will spur private sector job creation by cutting taxes and red tape. We will fully fund education, stand with our farmers, and protect the values that we hold dear.
“As governor, I will work – every day – to keep Georgia moving in the right direction. My vision is for a safer, stronger state. I know. It can be done.”
- Voters who followed Kemp for any length of time will recognize these campaign-trail staples, delivered with less of an edge now that he’s won the election. (For instance, there was no chainsaw this time to emphasize his regulation-slashing agenda.)
“Coach Henderson’s life – and career – were marked by adversity. He endured countless challenges that molded him as a man and inspired him as a leader. As a boy, coach lost his father. His mom would walk to work – instead of spending money on the bus – so she could afford uniforms for Billy.
“On Labor Day in 1964, Coach Henderson’s oldest son – Brad – died in a tragic car accident. He mourned but never missed a day of practice. Coach inherited losing teams with losing attitudes, but he hunkered down and got to work. Coach always scheduled the hardest games so he could turn weakness into opportunity.”
- Again, Kemp’s using football as a parable for his political experience. He faced a tough gauntlet – he was the heavy underdog in the race against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle – and defeated one of the most prominent Democrats in the nation to win election.
“While we are experiencing incredible growth as a state, we have our challenges as well. Many seem too big to fix. Small businesses throughout Georgia still feel like it’s 2009. Sixty-three percent of third-graders aren’t reading at grade level. Mental health issues, opioid abuse, and sex trafficking plague our communities. Gangs and drug cartels are flooding our streets with violence and fear.”
- This is tricky territory for Kemp, who was careful not to directly criticize his Republican predecessors for much of the campaign while also trying to contrast himself from them. The line about rampant crime has been a staple of his campaign, with some reports indicating gang violence is increasing while federal data show violent crime is decreasing in major cities.
“As governor, we will make Georgia the number one state for small business. We will invest in early learning and protect the vulnerable. We will crack down on organized crime and those who threaten our future. The challenges ahead are great but it can be done.”
- Even before he jumped in the campaign, he previewed the message he echoed above: improving Georgia’s small business climate and targeting crime. In one of his first specific policy initiatives, he promised to create a new database to track undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes and to speed deportations if he’s elected.
“I met Coach Henderson when I was twelve years old. He moved to my hometown of Athens to coach a football team that only won a single game in the previous season. I travelled with the team for years and lugged around a tub of bubble gum that coach chewed on and off the field.
“I was just a boy among men, but I guarded that gum with my life. Coach realized quickly that the Gladiators football program had talent. But they weren’t a team. In the wake of desegregation, Clarke Central was still divided on racial lines. Coach took the football team to Jekyll Island for pre-season camp. They came back as brothers.
“In the years that followed, Clarke Central won three state championships. He rebuilt a program but more importantly, he rebuilt a community.”
- You know where this is going. From Henderson’s “Remember The Titans”-like run, Kemp is trying to build a case that he, too, can unite a state riven by political tension and an urban-rural divide after a close election.
“Through the prism of politics, our state appears divided. Metro versus rural. Black versus white. Republican versus Democrat. Elections can rip us apart.
“But after visiting all 159 counties, I can tell you: we have so much in common. As governor, I will fight for all Georgians – not just the ones who voted for me.”
- Georgia Democrats have other ideas: The state party, embracing a more confrontational style, called Kemp the “asterisk governor” on the eve of his inauguration and chairman DuBose Porter said it was a “dark day” in Georgia history. Added Porter: “His term is already marked by weak leadership and failure to work on behalf of voters as he abandons his campaign promises.”
“We will address the infrastructure problems in metro communities to keep our economy growing. We will work around the clock to bring High Speed Internet and jobs to rural Georgia.
“I will partner with the legislature to ensure that families have access to affordable healthcare and quality education – no matter their zip code.
“We will keep our schools, our streets, and our kids safe. And put people ahead of divisive politics. We will be known as a state united. It can be done.”
- This may be Kemp’s loftiest statement: After an election clouded by concerns about voter suppression and an outcome so divided that Stacey Abrams and many of her supporters don’t see him as the legitimate governor, Kemp predicts that Georgia will one day be known as a “state united.”
“Eleven months ago today – on February 14, 2018 – Coach Billy Henderson passed away at the age of 89. I will always cherish the final moments we spent together. We talked about the good ole days:
“Daniel Dooley and I carrying him off the field after we won the state championship in 1979, his “tough love” at football camp, the campaign and the kids.
“As always, Coach shared his wisdom and insight. And in our final photo together, he proudly wore a ‘Kemp for Governor’ hat.”
- Shortly after Henderson died, Kemp posted that picture of the two together on Facebook. He wrote: “We lost a giant today but heaven gained one damn good Dawg and Gladiator!”
“I stand here today as Georgia’s 83rd governor but I did not get here alone. I am forever grateful for my wife, Marty, and our three daughters – Jarrett, Lucy, and Amy Porter – who believed in me when no one else would. We are a team and we never stopped choppin.”
- Two notes here: Marty and his daughters were omnipresent by his side, to the point where it’s hard to find a picture of him on the campaign trail without being flanked by one of his daughters or his wife. Secondly, “we never stopped choppin” is maybe Kemp’s favorite catchphrase, borrowed from Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
“I’m forever grateful for those who came before me – my parents, teachers, and mentors like Coach Billy Henderson - who poured the concrete and laid the foundation.
“In the years to come, we will build on our accomplishments. With courage, we will face the challenges that exist.
“We will unite for the betterment of our state. Together, we will put hardworking Georgians first.
“I know there will be adversity. Those who want to tear us down. There will be difficult days and dark nights. But together, we will overcome.
“Like Coach said: ‘It can be done.’”
- This closing section checked all the Kemp boxes: It summoned his “hardworking Georgians” campaign mantra, leveled an oblique attack on critics who “want to tear us down” and repeated the theme – unity – that he wanted to emphasize throughout the speech.
- The stage is set. Over the next few months, we’ll find out whether his actions live up to his words.
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