Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, left, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle face each other in a July 24 GOP runoff.

A pledge to fight poverty riles up the Georgia governor’s race

Is a Republican’s pledge to fight poverty now an inexcusable offense in an ultracompetitive race for the most conservative voters in Georgia? That’s the question both GOP candidates for governor confronted Tuesday after another clip of a secretly recorded conversation was released.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s allies hope to rile up conservatives with the recording of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle saying he wants to “cut poverty in half.” The lieutenant governor held a press conference late Tuesday to proclaim every word in that recording was correct.

“I’m guilty,” he told a bank of TV cameras, calling it a “defining moment for the campaign.”

As he spoke, he motioned toward a color-coded map behind him that marked 40 Georgia counties with poverty rates topping 40 percent, and he blasted Republicans “more interested in a country club approach than working to seek greater opportunity for all.”

An hour earlier, Kemp went before the cameras to say he has no problem with a pledge to fight poverty — and plenty of beef with a plan to do so that’s overly reliant on government.

The recording had to deal with Republicans and their stance on poverty in Georgia

Both campaigns have spent much of the run-up to the July 24 runoff focusing on red-meat items such as expansions of gun rights and abortion restrictions to energize the conservatives who will decide the nomination. But the 75-second clip injected a new debate into the charged race — and one Cagle relished.

It was part of a longer conversation covertly taped by Clay Tippins. Other cuts have put Cagle on the defensive: One had him acknowledging he backed “bad public policy” to undercut another rival. In another, he said the GOP race felt like a contest of “who could be the craziest.” 

This clip was released by an aide to former state Sen. Hunter Hill on the eve of his formal endorsement of Kemp, and it showed a softer side of Cagle. He spoke of growing up in trailer with a single mother who struggled to make ends meet.

“I literally have a goal — a personal goal. I want to cut poverty in half. And I believe that I can do it,” he said in the recording, adding he’ll be a governor “who’s really focused on the needy and really trying to lift those people up.”

He continues: “I mean, you’ve heard my story of where I came from. That’s not (expletive). That’s real, OK? Every ounce of that is real. I attended eight elementary schools by the time I reached the sixth grade. I really should not be where I am.”

Cagle’s rivals jumped on those words to claim the Republican was channeling Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which involved a series of poverty reduction initiatives. Hill, who finished in third place in the May primary, called it a “revelation” about Cagle’s philosophy.

“Big government does not solve poverty. That’s a Democrat message,” Hill said as he stood beside Kemp to deliver his endorsement. “And we’ve seen the failures of 70 years of big government failing to deliver results for the poor.”

Kemp, too, knocked his opponent for suggesting that a governor — and not the private sector — would play a lead role in reducing economic inequality.

“Everybody would love to cut poverty in half,” he said. “The way you do that is the difference in his policies and where Hunter and I are on limited government and empowering people to do that for themselves.”

Trailing in the polls to Kemp, Cagle saw the release of the recording as a chance to focus on a pledge he often invokes on the campaign trail: his pitch to “build an economy that leaves no one behind.”

Holding court during a press conference at his campaign headquarters, Cagle noted how Kemp’s native Athens-Clarke County has one of the state’s higher poverty rates and said his anti-poverty plan was no “big government expansion.”

Instead, he’d grow the network of college and career academies that he spearheaded as lieutenant governor, boost worker retraining programs and require that lower-income residents receiving state benefits pass drug tests and show they’ve sought work.

“My opponent has no solutions other than to criticize me,” Cagle said. “That’s not what Republicans are about. Fundamentally, Republicans believe in creating more opportunities for self-reliance.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were relishing the scrap.

Stacey Abrams, the party’s nominee for governor, has pledged to fight poverty and battle economic inequality since she entered the race. And her former rival, ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans, said she’s proud to be in a party “that doesn’t see cutting poverty rates as a bad idea.”

“Oh, the mindset one can develop when you’ve never worried about keeping the lights on,” Evans said in a social media post. “Shame on those who see this as a gotcha.”

2018 campaign 

It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republicans Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, and Democrat Stacey Abrams. We’ve looked at Cagle’s connections to lobbyists, Kemp’s fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams’ tax difficulties. Look for more at as the state approaches the next political milepost, the July 24 Republican runoff for governor.

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