Brian Kemp was sworn in as Georgia’s 83rd governor on Monday with a speech that aimed to put the charged, partisan campaign behind him and start anew with a pledge to work with Democrats to “put people ahead of divisive politics.”
During an inauguration ceremony at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, the Republican echoed a range of broad policies he proposed on the campaign trail: a promise to cut taxes and reduce regulations, to fully finance the k-12 system and “protect the values that we hold dear.”
And he committed to bridging the chasm left by an exceedingly bitter race between him and Stacey Abrams that widened the political gulf between metro Atlanta and the state’s agricultural heartland, triggered a fierce battle over voting rights, and ended with the Democrat refusing to formally concede.
“Through the prism of politics, our state appears divided. Metro versus rural. Black versus white. Republican versus Democrat,” he said. “Elections can rip us apart. But after visiting all 159 counties, I can tell you we have so much in common. As governor, I will fight for all Georgians — not just the ones who voted for me.”
Faced with some voters who question the legitimacy of his victory, Kemp said he would win over skeptics with crackdowns on organized crime and new investments in education. Under his leadership, he predicted, Georgia will “be known as a state united.”
“In the years to come, we will build on our accomplishments. With courage, we will face the challenges that exist,” he said. “We will unite for the betterment of our state. Together, we will put hardworking Georgians first.”
Even the Bible verse he invoked during the swearing-in ceremony, Proverbs 16:7, was meant to send that message: “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him.”
The sunny message was a clean break from the partisan nastiness of the election campaign. In the race’s fraught final months, Kemp cast Abrams as an extremist bent on turning Georgia into a socialist’s playground, and she countered with cutting critiques of his record as the state’s top elections official.
The focus on bipartisan unity was also not unexpected: Kemp and his Republican predecessors have generally used inaugural speeches to promise a more conciliatory approach, as did Democrats when they controlled the state’s top office.
But Kemp’s address underscored an edgier, more volatile era of Georgia politics after Abrams nearly forced a runoff in one of the tightest gubernatorial elections in decades.
Republicans still control every statewide office in Georgia, as they have since the 2010 election, but their majorities in the Legislature were squeezed by a wave of defeats across the Atlanta suburbs. In all, 13 legislative seats flipped, giving Democrats new clout to block GOP proposals.
And Democrats are set to take a more confrontational approach toward Kemp than they did toward Gov. Nathan Deal, who finished his two terms in office in high regard, after a vote Abrams and many allies saw as tainted by Kemp’s refusal to step down as secretary of state.
Hours before Kemp’s inauguration, Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman DuBose Porter called it a “dark day in Georgia’s history” and said Kemp was more committed to his own self-interest than the needs of families.
“His term is already marked by weak leadership and failure to work on behalf of voters as he abandons his campaign promises,” Porter said. “Governor Brian Kemp will forever have a cloud over his head and an asterisk by his name.”
Eye on 2020
Politicians already have one eye on 2020, when Georgia is set to emerge as a presidential battleground state with the suburbs as a main staging ground. Which is why Kemp signaled a focus on middle-ground appeals that Democrats may find hard to oppose.
That includes his promise to give teachers a $5,000 annual pay raise, offer new incentives for small businesses, and demand new public safety measures to combat gang violence and sex trafficking.
Using broad rhetoric but few specifics — he’s expected to detail his policies later this week — Kemp said he would work with legislators to help families access more affordable health care, bring faster internet and more jobs to rural Georgia, and ease metro Atlanta’s infrastructure problems.
“Georgia is the epicenter of job growth, the Hollywood of the South, and soon to be the cyber capital of the world,” he said. “Some think we’ve reached our peak. I disagree. As governor, I will build on our accomplishments.”
Left unsaid is how forcefully he’ll pursue conservative pledges he made to win the GOP nomination and curry favor with supporters of President Donald Trump, whose late endorsement helped seal his win in July’s Republican primary runoff. They include promises to sign “religious liberty” legislation, expand gun rights and restrict abortions.
He took the same strategy before the inauguration with a nine-city bus tour that skirted metro Atlanta — where a string of events will be held this week — in favor of smaller cities and rural towns. At each stop, he focused on centrist campaign promises and spoke little of the more divisive social ones.
Also unmentioned during his inaugural speech was whether he’ll seek major changes to the state’s electoral system after an election clouded by voter suppression allegations and his refusal to step down as the secretary of state.
‘It can be done’
Kemp took the oath of office at 2:30 p.m. and promptly swore in Geoff Duncan, who became Georgia’s first new lieutenant governor in 12 years. Duncan, who succeeded Casey Cagle, said thanked his wife and three kids for following his “every crazy dream” — from a baseball career to one of Georgia’s most important offices.
He was followed by other statewide constitutional officers: Attorney General Chris Carr, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, School Superintendent Richard Woods, Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.
With his inauguration, Kemp achieved a note of history: He became the first lifelong Republican elected Georgia governor since Reconstruction. His two GOP predecessors, Deal and Sonny Perdue, were both former conservative Democrats who switched parties.
The Georgia Tech auditorium, filled with a few thousand people, was an incongruous setting for Kemp, a die-hard University of Georgia fan from Athens. As if to emphasize his red-and-black roots, he Kemp turned to a legendary Athens football coach to tie together his address.
That figure was Billy Henderson, who Kemp first encountered when the coach took over a miserable Athens-Clarke County football program in the early 1970s. By then, Henderson was already known for his coaching ability and work ethic; he once refused to miss a day of practice after his eldest son’s death.
Kemp, then just 12 years old, was tasked with lugging around the coach’s jumbo tub of chewing gum.
“I was just a boy among men, but I guarded that gum with my life,” he said to a burst of laughter.
He watched as Henderson brought together a team riven by racial strife with a preseason camp in Jekyll Island. He marveled as Henderson managed to turn “weakness into opportunity” by scheduling the hardest games for his hardscrabble teams. And he celebrated in 1979 by helping to carry Henderson off the field after their team won a state championship.
His voice straining with emotion, Kemp told the audience about his last visit with Henderson shortly before he died in February, when they talked about football, family and faith. And he sees a parallel between the coach’s gridiron campaigns and the political challenges he faces ahead.
“I know there will be adversity. Those who want to tear us down. There will be difficult days and dark nights,” he said. “But together, we will overcome. Because like coach said: ‘It can be done.’ ”