The first Hispanic to serve as a state constitutional officer in Georgia history. The first African American woman to work as Cobb County’s top prosecutor. The first woman to sit on the superior court bench in a stretch of west Georgia counties.
In the five months since he took office, Gov. Brian Kemp has tapped a diverse group to fill some of the state’s highest-profile openings. It’s come as a pleasant surprise to some of his critics, who worried he would take the opposite tack after he won a narrow victory by appealing to the GOP’s white base.
Hispanic advocacy groups lauded his selection of John King, the Doraville police chief, to replace suspended Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck. Democrats praised his criminal justice appointments. And judicial veterans applauded his early picks for key spots on the judiciary.
“Governor Kemp seems to be focused on qualifications and not so much on ideology,” said former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears, who was the nation’s first African American woman to preside over a state Supreme Court.
It’s “refreshing in this day and age because, as you know, judges aren’t supposed to be politicians and district attorneys aren’t supposed to prosecute based on political considerations,” she added.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that Kemp selected women for about half of the roughly 80 appointments he has made to state boards and criminal justice posts since January. About a quarter of those appointees are minorities, mostly African American officials. At least three are LGBTQ.
The selections offer an early snapshot of his strategy for filling key posts, but not a full picture. The Republican will have the chance to fill hundreds of additional board positions and, likely, appoint dozens of judges through 2022, and his strategy and record could look vastly different in a few years.
The scope of his appointments has been limited, too. No appellate-level judicial positions have come open yet for Kemp to fill, nor has he appointed members to several of the state’s most powerful panels, such as the Board of Regents, which oversees the higher education system and is typically a prime spot for major, mostly male campaign donors.
Still, after a campaign fueled by an appeal to the party’s conservatives, including promises to “round up criminal illegals” and fight “radical extremist” opponents from across the party aisle, the governor’s first wave of appointees has given even his harshest critics a reason to be optimistic.
State Sen. Elena Parent was among several Democratic lawmakers to praise some of Kemp’s high-profile selections, including his appointment of Joyette Holmes to be Cobb’s district attorney. She’s the first African American woman to serve in that role.
“I haven’t scoured all of Governor Kemp’s appointments, but I have noticed that in a few key incidents he has appointed diverse contenders,” said Parent, an attorney who represents parts of DeKalb County.
“We have a diverse population, and that should be reflected in those that are appointed to serve,” she said. “I hope that Governor Kemp continues to take that into account.”
Georgia law gives the governor wide latitude to fill judicial openings and appoint members of the powerful boards that oversee state agencies and departments, and they often stock those positions with political allies and donors.
Kemp is no exception, as his picks include major donors and supporters. Former Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds, one of his early endorsers, was tapped to lead the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, another key ally, is a finalist for a spot on the state’s judicial watchdog agency.
But Kemp’s other appointments include an array of newcomers not tightly associated with his campaign. The most prominent of those is King, who was tapped earlier this month to lead the state Insurance Department after Beck, who was elected in November, was indicted on federal fraud charges.
A military veteran with no insurance experience, King was recruited to overhaul a department notorious for being too cozy with industry officials. The governor called him a “war hero” and praised him for his leadership skills and history-making role as the state’s first Hispanic constitutional officer.
The move was immediately lauded by Hispanic advocacy groups including the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, whose leader, Jerry Gonzalez, described King as a “close friend” of the organization.
Those ties also sparked criticism from some conservatives. D.A. King, a well-known activist who opposes illegal immigration, posted a series of letters on his website warning that Kemp has tarnished his reputation with his selection of John King.
Kemp’s made diverse selections for some lower-profile openings, too.
The same day he reappointed National Rifle Association President Carolyn Meadows, a Republican activist from Marietta, to the board that governs state-owned Stone Mountain, he also tapped the Rev. Abraham Mosley for a spot on the panel.
Mosley, a longtime pastor from Kemp’s hometown of Athens, becomes only the second African American to serve on the 10-person panel that oversees the nation’s largest monument to Confederate war dead.
And Kemp tapped prominent black Republicans for two of his five selections on the state Board of Economic Development, tasked with recruiting businesses: T. Dallas Smith, the owner of a commercial real estate brokerage; and June Wood, the first black chairwoman of the Henry County Commission.
He may be most closely scrutinized, however, for his judicial picks — particularly after his predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, drew sharp criticism for his record.
Over two terms in office, Deal reshaped the judiciary by appointing a majority of appellate court judges and dozens of lower court jurists. His administration said Deal picked 166 justice system appointees overall as he pushed an overhaul that sent fewer defendants to lengthy sentences for low-level crimes.
But Deal faced blowback for a lack of racial diversity among his picks, particularly on the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, which both expanded at his urging.
Of Deal’s 21 appointments to those courts over eight years, 19 of them were white jurists; the other two were a black man and an Asian woman. He chose men for 15 of those posts, reducing the proportion of women on the state’s highest court.
Kemp, too, raised similar concerns when he selected a 25-member judicial nominating commission that includes 13 white men, 10 women and only a handful of minorities to vet each candidate for court openings.
But advocates for gender and racial equality said they’re encouraged by his first picks. Of the eight superior court judges Kemp has so far selected, five are women and three are African American.
Two of the new female jurists — Shondeana Morris, who is black, and Stacey Hydrick, who is Jewish — were tapped for open seats on the bench in heavily Democratic DeKalb. Markette Baker is the first woman to ever sit on the Superior Court in the Coweta Judicial Circuit, a five-county span in west Georgia.
And on Tuesday, he appointed Tadia Whitner to the Gwinnett Superior Court, making her the first African-American to take the bench for the county's highest court.
Charles Johnson, an attorney and frequent critic of Deal’s judicial appointments, singled out Kemp’s appointments of Holmes and Morris as “reason to be encouraged” by the governor’s record.
But he said the true test will be how he handles vacancies to the Superior Court of Fulton County, the landing spot for most of the legal challenges related to the powers of state agencies and officials. About 45% of the county’s residents are black, but only one person of color has been appointed to that bench since 2003, he said.
“It is my hope that, once he takes a look at the data, the governor will want to help restore balance to the appointments on the Fulton Superior Court — just as he has begun to introduce a measure of balance to the appointments to other courts around the state,” said Johnson, who recently retired from an Atlanta law firm and is now the general counsel of Tuskegee University.
Sears, the first woman on the state’s highest court, also said the jury is still out on Kemp’s picks.
“I’m going to need to see a little bit more until I’ll be able to celebrate the fact that the state is really headed in a different direction in terms of diversity, inclusion and appointments to the judiciary — including district attorneys, et cetera,” Sears said.
“So, all in all,” she said, “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
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