Vice President Mike Pence, center, and his wife, Karen, speak with Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty after arriving Friday morning at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Standing behind the vice president are U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his wife, Mary. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pence promises ‘help is on the way’ in return visit to Georgia

Vice President Mike Pence marked his second visit to Georgia in a week with a fresh endorsement of the state’s aggressive rollback of coronavirus restrictions and a promise that more “help is on the way” for residents and businesses struggling with the pandemic.

His visit Friday was met with stinging criticism from Georgia Democrats, who accused the White House and Gov. Brian Kemp of downplaying the threat and ignoring experts to reopen the economy at the risk of public safety.

Just like his last visit a week ago, Pence flew into Dobbins Air Reserve Base, huddled with Kemp, met with local business executives and honored the memory of the late Ravi Zacharias, the famed evangelist who forged a reputation as a vigorous defender of Christianity.

This time, Pence also addressed the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a police officer used his knee to restrain Floyd’s neck, and the growing unrest over police violence that triggered violent demonstrations in Minneapolis and protests elsewhere in the nation.

“We have no tolerance for racism in America. We have no tolerance for violence inspired by racism. And as President (Donald) Trump said, justice will be served,” said Pence, who also mentioned the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot to death near Brunswick in February after a confrontation with several white men who have been charged with his murder.

Addressing the protests, Pence also said the administration condemns “violence against property or persons” and stands for the right to peacefully demonstrate. He did not refer to Trump’s tweets that called the protesters “thugs” and appeared to threaten violence against them.

‘Leading the way’

The abrupt scheduling of Pence’s visit, made public Thursday just hours before his arrival, surprised even Georgia Republicans, given the prominent attention the vice president received in Atlanta last week during a meeting at Waffle House’s headquarters and a lunch with Kemp and other state officials.

During that trip, he praised the state as “an example to the nation” by being one of the first to lift economic limits imposed during the pandemic — making clear the White House supported Kemp’s approach to steadily scale back restrictions.

It was a sharp turnabout from Trump’s repeated criticism of the governor in late April for his decision to allow barbershops, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen if they follow safety guidelines.

Pence was unequivocal again Friday as he started a roundtable discussion at Unity National Bank, a minority-owned bank in downtown Atlanta, by heaping compliments on Kemp’s steps to roll back restrictions.

“Georgia’s leading the way in reopening America,” he said. “We want to commend you for the safe and responsible and measured way that you continue to restore not only the economic life but the cultural life of this community.”

Kemp, who signed an executive order Thursday that allows bars and nightclubs to reopen starting next week, and amusement parks shortly after that, thanked Pence for what he called an “unprecedented” response to the crisis.

Throughout the roundtable, Pence — the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force — offered an optimistic view of the nation’s response to the pandemic, saying the “trend lines are encouraging.”

When Cynthia Johnson, the owner of a local salon, asked for more resources to revive her business and the “long road ahead,” Pence said another round of economic stimulus was in the works.

“Help is on the way a couple of different ways,” Pence said.

The sunny picture echoes Kemp’s outlook. The Republican governor has pointed to a sharp decline in hospitalization rates and said he’s unfazed by a recent rise in coronavirus cases, which he described as the result of a backlog of test results.

That plan has infuriated state Democrats, who accused Kemp of squandering the chance to prepare the economy for the pandemic and ignoring warnings from public health experts who say scaling back restrictions could invite a second wave of the disease.

“Hundreds of thousands of Georgians have lost their jobs and are bracing for worse,” said Nikema Williams, a state senator who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, “but our leaders are more focused on their political agenda than getting us economic relief.”

The campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also accused Pence of trying to push a narrative that tries to distract Georgians from the White House’s “botched” response to the virus.

“Peach State residents see right through it and they deserve better,” Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said. “In November, they’ll have the opportunity to reject the ineptitude that got us here and vote for Joe Biden.”

‘He spoke truth’

The main purpose of Pence’s visit, however, was to deliver remarks at the memorial service for Zacharias, who honed a personal relationship with the vice president as he traveled the globe defending Christianity.

“God put him at my side at just the right time, with a word of wisdom, and kindness and encouragement that I’ll never forget,” Pence said at the service, held at Passion City Church, a megachurch on the site of a former big-box store near the Lindbergh MARTA complex.

“His passing comes at a time when so many families around the world are grieving the loss of loved ones,” said Pence, who called Zacharias “the greatest Christian apologist of this century” and “the C.S. Lewis of our day.”

The audience was studded with political leaders sitting in staggered, socially distant clusters, including Kemp, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Each wore masks throughout the ceremony, though they took them off for the business roundtable.

As the ceremony started, Zacharias’ aides took visitors on a virtual tour of his treasured belongings, such as the cracked Blackberry he used to tap out drafts of his articles and the luggage he brought on his last trip before cancer took his life.

Just before Pence spoke, Zacharias’ daughter, Sarah Davis, read a psalm from her father’s Bible. Then the vice president stood behind a podium bearing his office’s insignia and said that Zacharias’ comforting voice will be missed as “the nation begins the process of healing and recovering” from the pandemic.

“He spoke truth,” Pence said. “He spoke it with kindness and a deep and abiding care for every person that would listen.”

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