Delta-NRA spat puts Georgia Republicans, Democrats in odd positions

Georgia Democrats are rushing to support Delta Air Lines in its feud with state Republicans over the kind of tax break that they’ve often criticized. GOP officials, meanwhile, are denouncing corporate political speech of the variety they once vigorously defended.

The fallout over Delta’s recent decision to cut business ties with the National Rifle Association is scrambling the traditional gospel preached by the two parties as the state Legislature voted to punish the state’s largest private employer by denying it a lucrative tax break on jet fuel.

The shift is sharpened by a race for governor that’s pulling candidates from both sides of the aisle to their party’s flanks. All five leading Republican candidates for governor slammed Delta for ending discounted rates for NRA members, while both of the top Democratic contenders bashed the GOP for vilifying the Atlanta-based airline and potentially harming the city’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The dust-up started when Delta, under pressure from gun control activists after the mass shooting in Florida, surprised state leaders with a tweet over the weekend announcing it was ending its partnership with the NRA. Within days, infuriated conservatives rallied lawmakers to hold up a $50 million tax break that would benefit Delta.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner for governor and president of the Senate, effectively blocked the legislation when he vowed to “kill” the measure unless the airline changed course. “We can fight for jobs, but we can also fight for values,” Cagle said. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

A host of Republican officials, even those who had previously opposed legislation offering tax benefits to mega-corporations, rushed to Cagle’s defense in the name of the Second Amendment. They said the airline was nakedly discriminating against gun owners, and they cast Democrats as political shape-shifters.

"We've had the very same people who were saying a week ago that this was corporate welfare reverse themselves now that because this company happens to adopt their favorite progressive causes," said state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican running for secretary of state. "It's totally hypocritical."

Illegal threat?

He's referring to a vote in the House last week when some Democrats criticized the tax break as harmful to Clayton County schools. It's not an anomaly. The party's left has long railed against doling out major incentives to big corporations; Vincent Fort, the former No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, ran for Atlanta mayor on a pledge to reject "mega tax breaks."

But the Democrats who seized on the attacks on Delta say this fracas is different, in part because it comes as a direct result of the airline's decision to take a stance on the gun debate following the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school. They hoped to appeal to moderates and independents upset by the GOP's treatment of one of Atlanta's name-brand companies, and they swiftly sent fundraising pleas to supporters.

Stacey Abrams, once the state House’s top Democrat, said through a spokeswoman that the fallout is proof that Cagle would “stick a finger in the eye of a huge employer in our state just to satisfy his buddies at the NRA.” And former state Rep. Stacey Evans, her rival for the party’s gubernatorial nod, said it risks forcing Delta to take flight.

Evans also took a more aggressive approach, urging state Attorney General Chris Carr to investigate whether Cagle violated state criminal and ethics laws with his threat against Delta. She said Cagle could have run afoul of state laws making it illegal for officials to offer “special favors or privileges” because he is a member of the NRA.

Both Cagle and Carr declined to comment on the request. But several legal experts and analysts said while Cagle’s threat doesn’t necessarily break any laws, it raised broader concerns about whether he’s violating Delta’s rights to free speech.

“Urging negative action against a person or corporation based on their political views may in some ways infringe on First Amendment values, but it would not seem inappropriate in general for an elected official to speak about matters of public concern,” said Robert Schapiro, a professor at Emory University’s School of Law.

Even if it’s not illegal, Sara Henderson, the executive director of the Georgia branch of the good government group Common Cause, said the situation shines a light on how “officials will use their power to essentially punish those who don’t agree with them.”

“The problem is that these officials go largely unnoticed by the general public, who doesn’t hold them accountable until something like this happens,” she said. “Georgians should be paying attention to state and local government and let these officials know they are watching.”

Political speech

In the eight years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision — which expanded the free speech rights of corporations through campaign donations — most Georgia Republicans have vehemently defended the rights of companies to express their political views.

"Either all businesses should be able to give, or none should," state Sen. David Shafer, a Republican from Duluth who is now running for lieutenant governor, said in 2012. "We shouldn't pick winners and losers."

Many of the same figures were quick to decry Delta’s NRA move this week as discrimination against Second Amendment proponents.

Delta “singled out one organization based on basically what it does as its mission for an organization,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, noting that the airline often offers similar discounts to the members of other organizations flying in groups.

“I don’t even know how that doesn’t rise to the occasion of potential discrimination,” she said.

And several high-profile Republicans who have staunchly opposed the Delta tax break also have a record of repeatedly voting to support past incentives for the airline.

Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, another GOP candidate for governor who once served in the state Senate, both backed wiping out the jet fuel sales tax for Delta in the mid-2000s when the company was struggling. So did former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, a contender for lieutenant governor who voted for the incentives earlier this decade.

Each said it was Delta’s stance on the NRA — a decision that came as the Senate was preparing to vote on bringing back the tax break — that pushed them over the edge.

“Opposing the Delta tax break — especially after the airline insulted millions of law-abiding, Second Amendment supporters — is a no-brainer,” Kemp said.

That's created its own rift in the Georgia GOP. State Sen. Michael Williams, another candidate for governor, has long opposed the tax break and used a procedural maneuver last week to block a vote on the measure a day before the fracas erupted. He said it took a conservative uprising to get his opponents to take up his position.

“That’s what you get when you deal with career politicians whose thoughts, feelings and beliefs change with the wind,” he said.

Would this issue have caught fire if statewide primaries weren’t held in a few months? University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock doesn’t think so. He expects both parties to return to their corners after election season.

“If this was 2016 when none of our statewide officers were up for election,” he said, “I’m not sure this would have the same kind of reaction.”

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