Hate-crimes law highlights less partisan session

June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp and Rep. Calvin Smyre hold the signed HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020.. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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June 26, 2020 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp and Rep. Calvin Smyre hold the signed HB 426, hate-crimes legislation, on the last day of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020.. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

On the final day of the 2019 legislative session, Alyssa Milano stood by the Capitol steps to rally against an anti-abortion bill that Gov. Brian Kemp would sign into law. In the same spot on this year’s final day, a bipartisan group celebrated the Republican’s support of a long-stalled hate-crimes law.

There was still partisan acrimony in the last days of a bizarre legislative session shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and protests demanding racial justice and equality. But, strangely for an election-year , much of the most polarizing legislation was sidelined.

An effort to give the state oversight over Atlanta’s airport never took off. An elections overhaul that would block state elections officials from sending ballot request forms to voters stalled. And Democrats staved off attempts to add “culture” as a protected class in the hate-crimes measure.

That moment of kumbaya isn’t likely to last. The end of the legislative session triggers a new phase of the election season, as lawmakers are now free from restrictions on campaign fundraising and can focus on their re-election bids.

But some optimistic lawmakers saw the hate-crimes measure, which imposes additional criminal penalties on crimes motivated by bias, as a template for more cooperation in the months ahead.

“Five days ago, I thought this was over. And then I received a text saying, ‘Can you talk?’” said state Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat who helped broker a compromise with Republicans to pass the measure. “And this General Assembly moved forward at light speed.”

Kemp also invoked the bipartisanship, celebrating the “truly remarkable” work by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to pass a budget sapped by the coronavirus and address other “challenges and realities that we have before us.”

‘Last session’

That’s not to say Democrats will emerge from the session without plenty of motivation, or that Republicans don’t have base-pleasing measures to tout.

Chief among them, for both parties, is a law to ban most abortions as early as six weeks. The measure, long sought by conservatives and detested by Democrats, was adopted last year after a bitter legislative fight. It was swiftly blocked by a judge and the legal challenge is still pending.

Democrats have a long list of other issues to energize supporters, including ignored pleas to expand Medicaid, overhaul the elections system and address systemic problems with the criminal justice system.

Many are also infuriated by legislation Republicans demanded in exchange for the hate-crimes law: A proposal that grants additional legal protections to law enforcement officers and other first-responders that critics say is both unnecessary and insulting amid ongoing protests against police brutality.

They’ve also got a sense of momentum. Democrats outvoted Republicans in this month’s primary for the first time in years, and shattered turnout records thanks largely to a surge in mail-in absentee voting.

Democrats have an outside shot of taking control of the Georgia House – they would need to flip 16 seats – and Republicans are increasingly nervous about holding the state in November’s presidential election.

President Donald Trump’s campaign reserved airtime for TV ads on Friday, and his campaign opened a new office in Atlanta’s northern suburbs a day later.

“Every step of the way, Georgia Republicans have failed to meet this moment in history and help the people of this state,” said Nikema Williams, a state senator who chairs the party. “Which is why this will be their last session in the majority.”

‘Set the way’

Still, Republicans have plenty to crow about to their backers. The anti-abortion bill is deeply popular with the party’s conservative base, and GOP leaders hope it helps drive turnout in rural parts of the state that Republicans must win by hefty margins to succeed in November.

But shortly after gaveling the session to a close, House Speaker David Ralston preferred to focus on the less polarizing efforts, including a plan to extend Medicaid for low-income mothers from two to six months postpartum.

“We can take a message that the Republicans in the House are interested in bipartisan solutions to the issues that matter to Georgians,” he said, adding that GOP candidates can also emphasize how it was “Republican leadership that brought us out of the Great Recession and we’ll continue to set the way.”

That theme of bipartisanship came up repeatedly in interviews with lawmakers on the last day.

The Georgia NAACP, which organized a massive rally at the statehouse as lawmakers returned from their hiatus, endorsed the measure. And Democrat after Democrat praised Republicans for coming to the table after Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death brought promises to pass the legislation.

“We’ve talked enough to overcome our differences, and that’s a good thing,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature.

“Politically, you’re always going to have differences. But this is a defining moment. This is more than just another piece of legislation. It’s no cure-all, but it’s a huge door to getting to other issues in our criminal justice system.”

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