Capitol Recap: Loeffler and her Dream split on ‘religious liberty’

Kelly Loeffler, Georgia’s U.S. senator to be, is a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, the city’s WNBA franchise. But that doesn’t guide her political views, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In particular, she and the team have expressed opposing opinions on “religious liberty” legislation. In 2016, the team joined the opposition to such legislation, which critics said would make it possible to discriminate against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. But Loeffler said this week that such a measure is necessary to protect people of faith. “I did not buy the team for political purposes or political statements,” she said. “I believe that people of faith should be free to make statements without fear of persecution.” Vino Wong vwong@ajc.com

It may not come up in Congress when she's a U.S. senator, but Kelly Loeffler says she sees a need for "religious liberty" legislation.

That pits the financial executive against some of the state’s most powerful business boosters. It even puts her on the side opposite the Atlanta Dream, the city’s WNBA franchise that she co-owns.

Ever since Loeffler's name first popped up as a potential successor to retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, she has had to counter accusations that she is a closet moderate and not a firm supporter of President Donald Trump. That's why, when Gov. Brian Kemp formally announced her as his choice to replace Isakson, she lined up behind issues important to Georgia conservatives by declaring herself "pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall and pro-Trump."

Religious liberty would be another of those issues.

Various forms of religious liberty legislation have been proposed at the General Assembly in recent years, and they have become a litmus test that conservatives apply to state officials.

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal failed the test in 2016, when he vetoed a bill that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their "sincerely held religious belief" and preserved their right to fire employees who aren't in accord with those beliefs. The governor was excoriated by some of the state's GOP activists, including one group that called for his "censure."

Deal killed the legislation amid heavy opposition from some of the state's leading businesses and threats of a Georgia boycott by some major companies. Those opponents included the Atlanta Dream.

Loeffler said in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team's positions on issues don't necessarily match her own.

“I bought the Atlanta Dream because I love basketball. I wanted to do something for the city of Atlanta, for the Southeast, for sports. I did not buy the team for political purposes or political statements,” she said. “I believe that people of faith should be free to make statements without fear of persecution.”

She added: “I think people of faith should be protected. And we should all be able to act according to our religious beliefs.”

That makes her sound a lot like most religious liberty supporters, who say such legislation would add a layer of protection for people of faith.

Critics, however, say that religious liberty bills could allow discrimination against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Those critics might take heart from something else Loeffler said: “We should treat all people with love and respect.”

A North-South divide: There's a new tool in measuring economic inequality in Georgia: geography.

Charlie Hayslett with Trouble in God's Country mined this nugget about economic activity in Georgia: "As of 2018, fully three-fourths of the state's gross domestic product was being generated north of the gnat line."

Hayslett reports that of the state’s $529.1 billion in gross domestic product in 2018, $396.9 billion — or 75.01% — was rooted in either the 12 counties that he categorized as metro Atlanta or the 41 counties that he defined as North Georgia.

Here’s another way to look at it: One-third of Georgia’s 159 counties produce $3 in economic impact for every $1 created in the rest of the state.

This concentration of GDP isn't just a Georgia thing. It's happening nationally, too.

Bloomberg News, citing 2018 data released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, reports that 31 counties, or 1% of all U.S. counties, produced 32.3% of the nation's GDP. That's even though those counties accounted for only 26.1% of employed Americans and only 21.9% of the total population.

Only one of those 31 counties is in Georgia: Fulton County, which generated 0.8% of the nation’s GDP in 2018.

Filling up: Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does Georgia politics.

Candidates are already rushing in to fill the void U.S. Rep. Tom Graves created two weeks ago when he announced he would not seek re-election.

So far, two are running to replace the congressman from Ranger, and more are expected to join them.

The first in was Marjorie Taylor Greene, who didn’t so much launch her campaign as redirect it.

She had been running in the 6th Congressional District, where she and former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel were the final two Republicans in what had once been a four-way primary.

But once Graves announced his retirement from Congress, Greene shifted her focus to his 14th Congressional District, even though the Milton businesswoman does not live within its boundaries.

Greene said she also quickly picked up the endorsement of House Freedom Fund, a PAC affiliated with the conservative caucus.

The race then grew to two when state Rep. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, then entered the contest.

Moore, 25, is a member of what’s called the “no” caucus in the state Legislature, setting him at odds with the GOP leadership, especially state House Speaker David Ralston.

He's an auctioneer whose work often takes him overseas. The Center Square, in reporting on the launch of Moore's campaign, mentioned that the candidate points to his international travel as an asset concerning foreign affairs policy.

Others are still considering whether to jump in.

Bill Carruth, a former chairman of the Paulding County Commission, is apparently taking a serious look at making a bid. His resume also includes a stint as chairman of the state Board of Natural Resources. He made an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate in 2012.

Other potential candidates include Paulding school board member Jason Anavitarte, Dallas Mayor Boyd Austin, former state Rep. Charlice Byrd of Woodstock and state Sen. Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga.

Two for the 11th: A race is also starting to take shape in the 11th Congressional District to determine who will challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Cassville.

Rod Sellers, a combat veteran and union member, has joined the Democratic contest. He has vowed not to take any funding from corporate political action committees or lobbyists.

Also in the race is Dana Barrett, who recently left her show on 640/WGST-AM to challenge Loudermilk. She's betting her "socially liberal" stance will appeal to suburban women.

The 11th is not as suburban, however, as Georgia’s 6th and 7th congressional districts. It stretches from Buckhead to Adairsville, and in the past it’s been represented by Republicans Bob Barr and Phil Gingrey. Loudermilk first won the district in 2014, and in last year’s election he captured more than 60% of the vote.

Trump won the district in 2016 by 25 percentage points.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, won an endorsement from Trump. The president announced his support in a tweet:

“@Buddy_Carter is a BUSINESSMAN first. He takes care of our Vets and Troops and is leading the fight to SLASH drug prices! Buddy’s 100% pro-Wall & 100% pro-jobs. He will KEEP AMERICA GREAT and has my total, Strong Endorsement!”

Carter said he believes the endorsement was prompted by his office’s work behind the scenes with the White House on the issue of lowering prescription drug costs for seniors. Carter is the only trained pharmacist in Congress.

— Value in Electing Women PAC, a conservative group that promotes the election of more GOP women to federal office, is backing the candidacy of former Home Depot executive Lynn Homrich in the 7th Congressional District race.

— Former Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, who lost a bid to become City Council president, is running for the Georgia House seat after Democratic state Rep. Pat Gardner chose not to seek re-election. Also running in that race is former state Rep. Stacey Evans, who moved from Smyrna to Atlanta after her campaign for governor fell short last year in the Democratic primary.

— Atlanta businessman Michael Render, better known as the rapper Killer Mike, is taking on new responsibilities in the Democratic presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Render recently appeared in Greenville, S.C., to promote the Vermont U.S. senator's bid for the White House.

Capitol Recap

Here's a look at some of the political and government stories that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's staff broke online during the past week. To see more of them, go to www.ajc.com/politics.

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