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As governor, Deal was a ‘pragmatist’ who stood out in era of Trump

Gov. Nathan Deal is not prone to bombastic speech, rapturous applause lines or the sort of sharp attacks that draw headlines and energize supporters. He is not a politician that wears his ego on his sleeve, nor is he one altogether comfortable with talking about himself.

Which is why discussing his legacy as he prepares to leave office next week makes him squirm. He peppers his remarks with credit to lawmakers for embracing his ideas, to his staff for shepherding his agenda. He worries a photo portrait shot in his office could make him appear smug.

At a time of peak polarization, Deal stands out as an anomaly in his final days in office: an understated politician who never lost an election and built a legacy as a consensus-building pragmatist with a record that seems a throwback in the era of Donald Trump.

A Democrat-turned-Republican who ruled the state during eight years of increasing partisanship — but who will leave the Governor’s Mansion with polls that show he’s the state’s most popular politician.

He steadied the state’s finances and exponentially boosted its depleted reserve funds as he initiated record spending on infrastructure and new building projects but held the line on some sweeping tax breaks sought by many in his party.

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He warred occasionally with both sides of the aisle, taking stances that drove some conservatives to threaten sanctions and payback after controversial vetoes and infuriating Democrats with hard-line approaches on many debates, including his steadfast opposition to Medicaid expansion.

And yet he pushed through most of the key elements of his agenda with overwhelming bipartisan support — sometimes even unanimous — as he rewrote criminal justice initiatives, overhauled workforce training policies and vastly expanded the judicial branch.

“As my wife would say, we just try to do what’s right,” Deal said, often choking up during a recent interview in his Capitol office.

“We try to treat people as they would be treated. And that pays dividends that you’ll never know,” Deal said. “When you have the average citizen come up and tell you, ‘Thank you,’ that means more than anything. Their lives are better, and some of the things we’ve done have contributed.”

Hits and misses

The governor had a string of policy setbacks, including the 2016 defeat at the ballot box of his failing school initiative and his failure to overhaul the k-12 funding system. And he was dogged at times by ethics questions, including whether he used his office to benefit his allies.

But he won two terms in office, and steered the broad majority of his priorities through the Legislature, by knitting together a coalition of rural conservatives and more moderate suburbanites with a blend of pro-business policies and culturally conservative legislation.

That mix included two major expansions on where Georgians can carry guns, a crackdown on illegal immigration and added restrictions on abortions. But he also defied his party by rejecting more sweeping legislation, most notably his 2016 veto of a “religious liberty” measure.

And he leaves office with a raft of new policies embraced by both parties, including vastly expanded tuition-free tech school programs and a redesigned approach to workforce development. In all, his office said, more than 800,000 jobs were created since he took office.

A common thread of his time in office was loyalty — often unflinching.

His chief of staff, Chris Riley, has spent more than half his life working for Deal. Legislative deputies and former staffers were tapped for key judicial posts. He made a protégé, Chris Carr,  the state’s attorney general. His hometown of Gainesville benefited from a sweep of projects he supported, including an entirely new technical college campus and an inland port.

Deal faced backlash for sticking with some allies even as they struggled, most notably an embattled emergency management chief who spearheaded Georgia’s embarrassing response to a 2014 dusting of snow and ice that paralyzed the city and a highway safety director accused of sexual harassment.

But even his fiercest opponents applauded his consensus-building strategy in the Legislature that started his first year in office with major changes to the HOPE scholarship program. His more inclusive approach was a contrast from that of his predecessor Sonny Perdue, whose aggressive style earned him the disdain of some GOP leaders.

“We regarded the Legislature as equal partners with the state. That makes all the difference in terms of the relationship between the legislative and executive branch of government,” Deal said. “If they don’t work together, not very much comes out.”

Democrat Jason Carter, whom Deal bested in the 2014 governor’s race, applauded him for significantly boosting school funding his final year in office. And Stacey Abrams, who negotiated with him as the state House’s top Democrat for much of the past decade, frequently invoked the Republican on the campaign trail as a model of good governance.

“Governor Deal is conservative, and those that try to cast him as a moderate mischaracterize him,” said Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to succeed him. “But he’s a pragmatist. And it’s that pragmatism that led to him being willing to work across the aisle but also to push back on his own people.”

‘I’m a believer’

To find Deal’s last electoral defeat, one must peer deep into the governor’s days as a young attorney in North Georgia, when he lost a race for president of the Gainesville Jaycees in the early 1970s.

“I learned a lesson in that regard: Don’t let your friends push yourself into things you didn’t want to do,” Deal said.

From then on, he was destined to enter political contests only after considerable planning, no matter the pressure. His next run, a bid for a state Senate seat in 1980, began a winning streak that continued through nine terms in Congress, a switch to the Republican Party and what started as a long-shot bid for governor in 2010.

But he parlayed his deep well of support in North Georgia to land in a GOP primary runoff against Karen Handel, triggering a matchup remembered for its viciousness.

The two battered each other for months in deeply personal ways, with Handel accusing him of sexism and Deal’s campaign dismissing her “unhinged blather.” After a narrow victory — he won by about 2,500 votes — the two later made amends.

“I usually have a pretty good political crystal ball, but I was dead wrong about Deal,” said Dan McLagan, a former Handel aide who was one of the more outspoken critics of Deal in 2010. “He did the good over the popular while staying true to principle. To quote the immortal Monkees: ‘I’m a believer.’ ”

He defeated former Gov. Roy Barnes in the 2010 general election by a comfortable 10-point margin but came to office grappling with challenges about how he would govern after such a divisive campaign.

To complicate matters, Georgia was still recovering from the Great Recession, which had forced state officials to lay off or furlough thousands of teachers and state employees.

Georgia’s k-12 schools and public universities saw deep funding cuts, as had most agencies. The state’s reserves had largely been depleted. It was about as difficult a time to take the reins of state government as any governor had faced in decades.

Deal quickly started rebuilding Georgia’s reserves, assembled business leaders to hash out new incentives and worked out a compromise with Democrats to cut awards for the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship to bolster the program’s long-term finances.

Job announcements were greeted with celebratory press conferences, and his tight relationship with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, then the state’s leading Democrat, was hailed as an example of the bounties of bipartisanship.

He was beset, too, with questions about ethics violations.

The most prominent claim came from a former head of the state ethics agency who said Deal’s aides urged her to make complaints against him “go away.” Federal investigators subpoenaed several ethics staffers in December 2013 but took no other public action. The state eventually agreed to pay roughly $3 million to settle lawsuits involving the ethics agency.

His rivals tried, unsuccessfully, to capitalize on the allegations. He beat back a pair of conservative challengers in 2014 and defeated Carter after a campaign focused on Georgia’s strengthening economy and a vow to rework the school funding formula to boost k-12 spending.

A criminal justice template

Shortly after he was sworn in, he pivoted to an idea that he hardly brought up on the campaign trail: an initiative to empower the state to take control of persistently struggling school districts. He muscled the measure through the Legislature, but it failed overwhelmingly at the ballot box in a big-money battle funded by his donors on one side and national teachers unions on the other.

Despite that defeat, he managed to push through most of the rest of his agenda, including a transportation infrastructure improvement plan, new spending on tech school programs and a vast expansion of the state judiciary.

He initiated a surge of spending on buildings that sprouted in cities and on college campuses across the state. On infrastructure alone, he ushered in billions in new spending, including an unprecedented boost in mass transit funding, a web of toll lanes on congested highways and repairs to crumbling bridges and roads.

It’s also here where he registered one of his most treasured accomplishments: A rainy day fund that hovered around $110 million when he took office will grow to more than $2.5 billion by the time he leaves it.

While he failed in his promise to rewrite the state’s formula to fund schools, by his last year in office he fully funded that formula for the first time since the early 2000s.

He viewed a poor education as endemic to a cycle of poverty and crime that plagues struggling Georgians and took steps to break the chain. He tied new funding of job training programs and efforts to improve the state’s worst-performing schools as a broader part of his signature achievement.

That would be the eight-year effort to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. New laws shifted thousands of nonviolent offenders from prison sentences toward treatment programs, gave judges more discretion with sentencing and poured new funding into rehabilitation efforts.

The changes were viewed by the two most recent presidents as a template for their own prison policies. And when Congress passed a vast federal rewrite of sentencing rules late last year, politicians and pundits praised Georgia as an inspiration for the changes.

“He’s probably the most significant governor since Carl Sanders,” outgoing state Sen. Fran Millar said. “Stop and think about this: Both Trump and Obama wanted to model Deal’s criminal justice initiative.”

‘A loving state’

The governor may be equally remembered for what he did not do. He often avoided much of the political divisiveness that’s defined the Trump era. He worked with President Barack Obama and met publicly with him at a time when Republicans — and even some Democrats — avoided the president.

And he bucked his own party in 2016 when he vetoed a “religious liberty” measure long sought by conservatives to provide more legal protections for the faith-based, including those who oppose same-sex marriage.

The veto, which came the day after Easter Sunday, was a seminal moment in Deal’s tenure. Corporate leaders rallied to his defense, and some cited the rejection as a reason to expand in Georgia. He was praised by Democrats and LGBT groups that considered it thinly veiled discrimination.

But he angered conservatives, prompting some activists to call for his ouster. His ties to the Georgia GOP were so strained that year that he didn’t attend the state party convention.

If some voters most remember his tenure for that splotch of red ink, the governor doesn’t seem to mind.

“They couldn’t give an example why it’s needed in Georgia,” he said. “On a human level, we’re a loving state. I don’t see any reason to pass something that lends itself to the implication that the government is encouraging discrimination. That’s not good government. It doesn’t make the state strong. It makes it weak.”

Most lame-duck governors see their influence wane as their term ends. In Deal’s last year in office, he knocked out a veritable checklist of unfinished business.

The final touches on his criminal justice package, the full funding of the state’s education system, a new inland port for his hometown of Gainesville, a tax break long sought by Delta Air Lines, emergency financing for hurricane-ravaged southwest Georgia and a bus rapid transit system for Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

As the governor prepares to retire to his home in the North Georgia mountains, he’s sanguine about the future. He may write a memoir. He’ll probably keep a hand in public policy as a consultant.

As he sat in a largely empty office recently, Deal paused for a moment when asked whether he’ll struggle with a quieter life, devoid of the trappings of power. He’s climbed a dizzying ladder of political power since 1980 — how can he not miss it?

“I’ll miss a lot of it. I’ll miss the opportunity to help people. And I worry that people will continue to come to me to ask for help and I won’t be able to do so,” said Deal, his voice straining with emotion.

“You can’t always do that — you can’t always help them,” he said. “But sometimes, just the fact that you would take the time to listen means so much.”

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