Deal’s top aide worries GOP ‘rhetoric’ could hamper Georgia’s Amazon bid

The governor’s office is warning that efforts to pass “religious liberty” legislation during the General Assembly’s upcoming session, even if they fail, could harm Georgia’s attempts to land economic development prizes such as Amazon’s second headquarters.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, said he’s concerned the “rhetoric” in the gubernatorial campaign could undercut the state’s business-friendly image. All four leading Republican candidates in the race have pledged to sign religious liberty legislation should it come to their desk. Each says socially conservative legislation and ambitious bids for new jobs are not mutually exclusive notions, and they maintain it would help protect people of faith from government intrusion.

Riley said Georgia’s message to Amazon and other firms eyeing the state is to watch what comes out of the legislative session, not the talk going in.

“Don’t measure us on the ‘what if,’ ” he said. “Measure us on the ‘what was done.’ “

It’s the latest reminder that Georgia’s all-out effort for Amazon’s second headquarters, a $5 billion development that could bring 50,000 high-paying jobs to metro Atlanta, will help shape the legislative session that begins Jan. 8. Riley said simply floating a religious liberty proposal next year could damage the state’s reputation.

“We will continue to work with those campaigns and ask them to remember when they speak those headlines go as quick and far as the CEO’s desk,” he said, adding of corporate leaders: “If I told you they weren’t paying attention, I’d be fibbing.”

He and other opponents seem bound to be disappointed. Religious liberty remains so popular with the GOP’s grass-roots base that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has positioned himself as the establishment-friendly Republican in the governor’s race, joined his rivals with a vow to sign such a measure if elected.

And religious liberty supporters fully expect the issue to come roaring back next year — and perhaps manifest in new ways. One such adaptation that emerged at the end of this year’s session would have allowed private adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples; its failure sparked GOP infighting and doomed an unrelated measure.

“I’d rather have the First Amendment than Amazon,” said Brant Frost V, the chairman of the Coweta County GOP. “I won’t barter away my children’s birthright of religious freedom for 30 pieces of economic development silver.”

Threats and ‘repercussions’

Deal is by now used to the perennial debate over religious liberty, having wrestled with such legislation for most of his second term in office. At first cautiously receptive to the idea, Deal has emerged as an outspoken opponent as versions of the legislation sparked uproars in Arizona and Indiana.

His position was cemented in 2016 when he nixed a measure that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their "sincerely held religious belief." He declared that it would violate Georgia's image as a state full of "warm, friendly and loving people," and he said earlier this year that he wouldn't hesitate to wield his veto pen again. 

“I don’t want to foreclose any issue,” Deal said in a recent interview, “but I do say there are certain issues that have to be dealt with in a very delicate fashion — or else there will be repercussions.”

He was roundly criticized by GOP activists for his opposition; one group even called for his "censure." Many of its supporters see the measure as a noncontroversial way to defend against what they view as a siege on Christian values, and they note that President Bill Clinton signed into law a federal religious liberty measure in 1993.

The opponents, including powerful business boosters and gay rights groups, say religious liberty bills amount to legalized discrimination, and they point to executives from dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted such legislation.

‘On the edge’

Georgia’s business and political leaders say they have plenty of reason to quake over next year’s debate. Amazon triggered an international sweepstakes with its proposal for a second headquarters, and more than 238 bids were submitted ahead of last week’s deadline. The company’s decision will forever change whichever city it chooses.

City and state leaders see it as another "Olympic moment," much like the successful hunt for the 1996 Games, and Atlanta is widely considered to be a top suitor for Amazon. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the state likely put forward its most "aggressive economic attraction package" in history, and Riley confirmed it was indeed a "very aggressive offer."

Speaking at a Monday event sponsored by Politically Georgia, Riley said the new mantra — “look at what we’ve done — not at the what if” — will be used not only to calm corporate chieftains at Amazon but also at other firms who factor socially conservative legislation into their decisions. He said four to eight other major corporate deals are in the works.

It will come in handy, Riley said: “One candidate is acting crazy. He’s seriously out there on the edge.”

State Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican candidate for governor with a knack for provocative, attention-grabbing stances, took Riley's remarks as a veiled reference to his campaign. He's cast the Gold Dome as a Washington-like swamp, and he adamantly opposed dangling huge incentives Amazon's way.

“Call me crazy, but handing out the biggest corporate welfare check in history from a state seems like a bad idea,” he said. “I want Amazon to come to Georgia, but I don’t want to pay them an enormous sum that will take them more than 100 years to pay back.”

Aides to Cagle and two other Republican contenders — Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and former state Sen. Hunter Hill — declined to comment on Riley’s remarks. Both Democratic candidates for governor, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, oppose any effort to revive religious liberty legislation.

Riley, for his part, said religious liberty is far from the only issue he worries could sully the state’s reputation heading into his final year as Deal’s chief of staff.

“I stay awake at night a lot,” he said.