“I’m just Marty.” A visit with Georgia’s low-key future first lady

ATHENS - After the most draining days on the campaign trail, Marty Kemp could walk out her back door and find solace in a reliable support group: Lula the horse, Miracle the sheep and Butterscotch the goat, part of the menagerie on the Kemps’ Athens-Clarke County farm.

“They’d see me coming,” she recalled, nuzzling Lula and her equine companions Roney, Rascal and Diamond. Their pasture overlooks the Kemp family home, built on 41 rolling acres her dad bought the day she was born. When her husband, Brian Kemp, becomes governor in a few weeks, she will trade the rustic patch where she’s raised three daughters (and a slew of critters) for public life in bustling Atlanta. But she says the change in address and title won’t change who she is.

“I’m just Marty,” she said, demurring at being addressed as First Lady. “I’m like a lot of people in Georgia. I’ve just raised children and been supportive of my husband. It’s just a simple way of life, I guess, which is what I like.”

MORE: The AJC's profile of Brian Kemp

Marty Kemp was a constant presence on the campaign trail. AJC photo: Jennifer Brett

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We met for an interview at the Kemps’ home a few days after Thanksgiving. The coffee table in the cozy family room was covered in papers. Recent storms had brought down limbs on the property. Inauguration gala details were still coming together, and although the Kemps had toured the residence at the Governor’s Mansion, it wasn’t yet clear which daughter was getting which bedroom.

Marty Kemp didn’t seem stressed about the pomp. She hadn’t yet decided on an official platform, but wants to focus on hurricane-ravaged southwest Georgia. Another likely cause for a 4-H mom known to feed strays on the campaign trail: animals.

“What we enjoy doing is helping others,” she said. “Brian and I have been the same way. We like to find the source of the problem and then try to fix it.”

Marty Kemp with Butterscotch the goat and other four-legged members of the Kemp family. AJC photo: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Unassuming as she is, Kemp, 52, seemed destined for a role in state history. Her father, the late Bob Argo, served in the Georgia House of Representatives for nearly a decade and led the efforts to fund the Tate Student Center at the University of Georgia. Marty Kemp was 10 when her dad took office, and remembers hanging out in the famously bedecked office of his cigar-chomping friend, the late, legendary Speaker Tom Murphy.

“I didn’t realize they were powerful, I thought it was just fun. Maybe that was part of the process of the good Lord preparing me, because I do believe he has a plan,” said Marty Kemp, whose family is active in the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens. “We didn’t plan on doing this when I was 10, I can promise you, and it was not in the marriage vows.”

Marty Kemp and Lula, one of the Kemps' horses. AJC photo: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Brian Kemp takes office on Jan. 14, about a week after the Kemps’ 25th anniversary. They’ve known each other since childhood, though. When her parents were away on business or legislative duties, young Marty would often spend the night with her best friend Julie Kemp - Brian’s sister. Although the Kemps both graduated from Clarke Central High School and then UGA, they didn’t start dating until after college.

“It’s pretty cool to have your best friend as your sister-in-law,” said Julie Kemp Rief of Atlanta.

Early in their marriage, with Brian Kemp’s construction business just getting started, the Kemps moved six times in three months, from one spec house to another, then into a log cabin with a window unit (in the middle of the summer) in what was then her parents’ property. Their first long-term dwelling had wheels.

“I was so excited to see that double wide come over the hill, I couldn’t stand it,” Marty Kemp recalled. A few years later, with their first child on the way, Brian Kemp started building the house they still call home. After college, Marty Kemp ran her parents’ travel agency and served as bookkeeper for Brian’s construction business. She’s also worked as a Pre-K and substitute teacher but has been a full-time parent since their kids were little.

“I kind of felt like this was my office,” she said. “Raising three girls, those were my bonuses and my salary.”

Marty Kemp, Georgia’s incoming first lady, loves animals. The 4-H mom got a chance to meet some on the campaign trail. Photo credit: Ben Grayson

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Kemp was a cheerleader at UGA (a fellow squad member was, coincidentally, Natasha Tretheway, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and become the United States Poet Laureate). A 1985 article in the Red and Black, the independent student newspaper serving the UGA community, quoted the late Coach Mike Castronis lauding the squad with candor you’d never hear today:

“Cheerleaders are very special because they participate in the rigors of cheerleading without the hope of financial aid and glory that other sports provide. Varsity cheerleading practices more than the football team, does public relations work, travels to all varsity games and is a continual NCAA top 20 squad, but gets less notice than any other sport.”

Cheerleaders were expected to practice 15 hours per week, attend summer training camps and report 10 days earlier than other students, the article noted. In what way, we wondered, might the trials of political life compare?

“We look at everything as a team effort,” said Marty Kemp, noting that when Brian was elected to the state senate in 2002, “I had a 3 1/2 year-old, a 2-year-old and a 3-month old. I thought, what in the world have I signed up for?”

Campaigning with her husband felt similar to preparing for competition.

“It’s definitely like a national championship,” said Kemp, who graduated in 1989 with a degree in consumer economics, two years after her husband graduated with a degree in agriculture. “You work hard to get to the game and then you perform as best you can.”

The Kemps’ daughters, Jarrett, 19, Lucy, 18, and Amy Porter, 16, spent time on the trail as well. The yellow plastic gas canister turned campaign donation bucket Lucy gamely toted around at many of the stops is now a prized heirloom.

Jarrett is a UGA sophomore. Lucy is a senior at Athens Academy and Amy Porter is a sophomore there. The school made arrangements for the girls to complete classwork on the road when they were with their dad’s campaign.

“It was a long, grueling process, but I really believe doing it as a family and praying got us through it,” said Marty Kemp, who made some tour stops on her own or with one of her daughters, while her husband campaigned elsewhere.

She also appeared in video ads including one in which she talks about knowing Brian since childhood and an emotional one about family members with preexisting health conditions. They struck a far softer tone than the tough-talking ads Brian Kemp used to edge past his NRA-endorsed primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. (“Jake,” the fictitious suitor who wants to date a Kemp daughter and gulps his appreciation of the Second Amendment while Kemp cleans his shotgun, was long gone by election day.)

Marty Kemp’s steadfast presence on the stump won admiration from Joan Kirchner Carr, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and wife of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. The Carr and Kemp teams made several tour stops together.

“She is so down to earth, she is so likable, so relatable,” Joan Kirchner Carr said. “The thing that totally cemented it for me was when their campaign was putting together donations for southwest Georgia. They posted a video of Marty Kemp driving the forklift like a boss and putting pallets of stuff on the truck. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this woman.’”

A mom and stepmom, Carr was impressed at how Marty Kemp gracefully balanced parenting and political stresses.

“I’ve raised a teenager. I saw some teenage girl moments. I would lock eyes with Marty, like, ‘I feel ya, sister,’” she said. “They are clearly a very close family.”

Marty Kemp and Joan Kirchner Carr at a campaign stop.

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Given their decision to campaign together, the Kemps had to deal with controversy as a family, too.

“I would say, ‘Don’t look at social media.’ And then, of course, the girls would,” Marty Kemp said. “The people who would say really ugly things, you would just pray for them.”

Following Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams' narrow loss (and "non-concession" speech), the political group she is backing claims in a lawsuit that as secretary of state, Brian Kemp "grossly mismanaged" the election and suppressed voting. Kemp has responded that county officials, not the Secretary of State's Office, are responsible for handling elections and that Georgians cast ballots in record numbers.

“All of that - I don’t want to say the lies - the untruths said about Brian, that he was incompetent, it makes your skin thick,” Marty Kemp said. “You just had to get up in the morning and know you had people supporting you. You just had to stay upbeat. We knew the truth was with us.”

As governor, Kemp will have at least three friends in Atlanta he can count on: the family’s golden retriever, Bailey, Gus the lab and Rhett the German shepherd are coming with them to West Paces Ferry Road. The horses, sheep, goats, chickens and a remarkably fleet-footed barn cat are staying put. Marty Kemp and her girls might divide their time between the Governor’s Mansion and the farm.

“This is a great getaway,” she said. “It’s a nice, peaceful place to be able to get back to.”

After watering the horses and warning us to get out of the path of a headbutt-happy goat, she paused at the pond. A goose with a broken wing had taken up there after its brethren flew south for the winter, leaving the poor guy behind.

“Don't tell Brian," she said, "but I'll probably get him some corn."

Get to know Marty Kemp

Hometown: Athens

Education: Clarke Central High School and the University of Georgia (consumer economics, 1989)

Background: She ran her parents’ travel agency and worked as bookkeeper for her husband’s construction firm after college. She also has worked as a Pre-K and subsitute teacher but has been a full-time parent since her kids were little.

Children: Jarrett, 19, Lucy, 18, Amy Porter, 16