As Kemp prepares to take office, his challenges mount

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, in advance of his inauguration, speaks during one of his Georgians First celebrations at the Foundation Club in Augusta. Kemp will take office as Georgia’s 83rd governor on Monday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, in advance of his inauguration, speaks during one of his Georgians First celebrations at the Foundation Club in Augusta. Kemp will take office as Georgia’s 83rd governor on Monday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Brian Kemp’s “thank-you” victory tour events usually started the same way: a flag-draped stage, an early supporter celebrating his underdog bid for governor, a crowd-pleasing stump speech, a reflection on how so many wrote him off, and gratitude to those who did not.

At some stops, Kemp allowed that there was a time that he, too, could not envision himself as Georgia's next governor, recounting his rise from a struggling homebuilder in Athens to the winner of the state's tightest gubernatorial election in decades.

"When I was fighting for my financial life during the recession, no one thought I would be the 83rd governor, including myself," he told one crowd. "But the good lord has given us an opportunity."

This is Kemp as he prepares for his Monday inauguration to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal: reflective, antsy, thankful — and mindful of the challenges ahead.

And there are many, starting with this question: Does Kemp, who so relentlessly pursued Donald Trump's supporters during the campaign, attempt to govern like him by constantly tacking toward his party's base? Or does he follow Deal's example with a blend of pragmatic conservatism?

That answer will come soon as Kemp, who has promised to unite Georgians after a poisonous election cycle, immediately tries to fulfill a milieu of campaign promises that stretch from conservative culture-wars vows during the GOP primary to the broader appeals that helped him narrowly defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election.

He must assemble an administration to run Georgia’s constellation of state agencies, boards and commissions work with the senior staffers he hired, a group that’s largely composed of allies and former aides with little experience in the state’s top executive office.

He will depend on fellow Republicans who are fresh off another sweep of Georgia’s statewide offices but are more skittish following a wave of Democratic gains across Atlanta’s suburbs that cut into their majority in the Legislature.

He must contend with a significant bloc of Georgians that doesn't accept him as the legitimate winner of a contest clouded by voter suppression allegations and his refusal to step down as the state's top elections official.

And he'll confront an emboldened group of Democrats who embrace a more liberal, and sometimes confrontational, approach than they did just two years ago — and have amassed enough power under the Gold Dome to scuttle some Republican priorities.

That party will be led by Abrams, who never formally conceded the race to Kemp and remains one of his fiercest critics. Unlike defeated candidates in the past, she has not receded from the spotlight as she prepares for what could be a possible rematch in 2022.

Kemp said he plans to navigate this high-wire act by staying true to the conservative stances while taking concrete steps to cut taxes, boost rural Georgia and improve teacher recruitment. But already, he's facing tension within his own party about how vigorously he'll pursue his more controversial promises.

And, if his nine-stop bus tour before the inauguration is any example, he's more likely to take his case to the voters with rallies and events modeled after his campaign trail strategy. He's already assigned staffers to new "outreach" positions to directly engage with Georgians, including those who didn't back him.

“We aren’t going to forget about the travels around the state — the issues we learned about, the stories we heard,” Kemp said. “We know we have a lot of challenges in our state, but we also know we have tremendous opportunities. And we’re going to do what we said we’d do.”

Pricey promises

That’s harder than it sounds. Kemp made an assortment of promises at different stages of the campaign that would test even the most accomplished politician.

There are the broad ones, such as a pledge to cut regulations, crack down on gang activity, reduce taxes and boost rural Georgia.

There are the specific ones, namely a $5,000 teacher pay raise that could cost more than $800 million, a plan to cap state spending and a $90 million slate of school safety measures.

There are the promises aimed directly at conservatives, such as the vows to sign the nation's toughest abortion restrictionsenact gun rights expansions and ink a "religious liberty" bill.

And there are the issues that surfaced during the election, such as the need to address the state's outdated voting machines, uneven standards for counting absentee ballots and voter cancellations.

Kemp has been tight-lipped about what exactly he’ll pursue over his first year, but he’ll sharpen his first-year agenda during a string of events this week that begins with his Monday inauguration and extends to his first State of the State speech on Thursday.

He's likely to parcel out his promise for $5,000 teacher pay raises over several years. A commission he recently drafted will hash out ways to reduce regulations. And he seems certain to push new public safety measures that take aim at gang violence and sex trafficking.

“I’ve been very clear for two years,” he said at one stop. “We will work hard to make Georgia No. 1 in state business. Reform state government. Budget conservatively. Lower taxes.”

One early example of the tension ahead involves a measure that would allow Georgians to carry concealed firearms without a permit that's a favorite demand of gun rights organizations in Georgia.

Asked recently about its chances of passing this year, House Speaker David Ralston said he'd take a "very, very cautious view" of the proposal and worried aloud that it could alienate moderate voters.

If Kemp shares those concerns, he didn’t betray them. But he also didn’t say he would forcefully back the legislation.

"My focus right now is going after street gangs, working on teacher pay raises," Kemp said during a stop in Savannah. "We've had a lot on our plate, trying to get the budget ready, get through the transition to get people in the right places."

Don't expect the gun groups that backed Kemp to let up the pressure. Patrick Parsons, the head of Georgia Gun Owners, soon sent supporters a reminder that Kemp signed a form endorsing the concept.

‘Not a mandate’

Democrats will be peppering the Legislature with their own proposals that stand little chance of passing but provide voters a framework of how the party would govern Georgia. They will include new efforts to restrict assault weapons, expand the Medicaid program and make tech school programs tuition-free.

And they’ll push for an overhaul of Georgia’s election laws to address uneven standards for the counting of absentee and provisional ballots, and make it harder to cancel registrations of voters who don’t often cast ballots.

"We're going to be much more active. The women who woke up this election cycle aren't going away," said state Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, a leading candidate to head the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“If people didn’t realize it before, they do now: This was not a mandate for Republicans in November, and Democrats aren’t waiting for the next election cycle. They’re going to be at the Capitol now — this is a year-round apparatus, ” Williams said.

And Democrats will have backup from Abrams, who became a national figure during her race for the seat. She continues to criticize Kemp's policies, calling him the "architect of voter suppression," and has sworn she will run for office again — she's just not sure which one.

"I need to make decisions not based on animus or bitterness or sadness, but really based in a pragmatism that says, 'This is the right thing to do,' " she said on WABE. "And I'm going to use that calculus and I intend to make a decision about the job I'm going to run for next by the end of March."

‘Who knows?’

Kemp’s pre-inauguration tour had all the trappings of a campaign blitz, from the chockablock schedule to stump speech remarks — just with bigger crowds, more reporters, fancier settings and none of the attacks on Democrats.

The places he visited also evoked his election strategy. Skirting metro Atlanta — his campaign noted a string of events there next week — he went to a cluster of smaller cities and rural towns: a private club in Augusta, a packed convention hall in Savannah, a donor’s home in the South Georgia hamlet of Chula.

Each drew a large crowd of local Republican officials, donors and activists — and a smattering of curious Democrats.

That's what brought state Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Butler, to a lavishly decorated barn in Fort Valley that usually plays host to weddings and family events. On this chilly weekday, it was home to a pork barbecue for Kemp — an event that left Bentley feeling open-minded about the next four years.

“Republicans know our numbers creeped up, and we’re going to need each other,” she said. “We may have to remind our Republican colleagues that we need a seat at the table, but I don’t expect any hard fights. I don’t expect all-out war.”

And then, slightly undermining her optimism: “But who knows? Anything can happen.”

Kemp's allies point to his record as a state senator representing parts of deeply Democratic Athens and signs that he'll focus on economic issues rather than divisive social ones. Steve Sanders, an Augusta attorney and chairman of the local GOP Party, predicted that Kemp's critics will be pleasantly surprised by his style of leadership.

“He’s going to have challenges like any new governor, but I think he’s already showing he’s going to have a very reasonable approach to those challenges,” Sanders said. “You’ve already seen him reach out and talk about unity, and he’s embracing a lot of the things that Governor Deal has done.”

And then there's Deal, who entered office eight years ago with his own stew of questions after a hard-fought campaign that surfaced stinging questions about his financial decisions and his experience. He'll leave office this week feted by elders from both parties.

In an interview, Deal offered his own advice to Kemp that starts with these five words: “Be patient, but be prepared.”

“You better know what you’re talking about. You better know what all the detailed answers are. And you’re going to have to educate not only the public, but also the legislators,” he said. “Failure breeds failure, success breeds success.”

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