The AJC’s James Salzer joined Politically Georgia host Greg Bluestein to discuss the latest on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, the charter school measure and the secret recording.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
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Greg Bluestein: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the Politically Georgia podcast, where we bring you news and analysis of all the latest Georgia shenanigans in Congress and under the Gold Dome. And on the campaign trail. I'm your host Greg Bluestein and today I'm joined by my colleague James Salzer, our statehouse veteran.Thanks for joining us James. James has covered the Capitol for how many years now?
James Salzer: Since just after Oglethorpe stepped off the boat in Savannah. Twenty-eight years.
GB: So he was in Atlanta when it was Marthasville.
GB: We mentioned this in the last podcast, but I don't think you've ever seen anything quite like this secret recording and the fallout it is already having on Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s campaign for governor.
JS: As I think I mentioned last time, it's not really eye-opening for anybody at the Capitol but it was eye-opening for people outside the Capitol because everybody kind of knows that that kind of stuff is you know, how things work. You just don't admit it in recordings like he did. That's kind of what's new about it. It’s surprising.
GB: Let's get everyone up to speed on exactly what has happened over the last week now. Earlier this month we had Clay Tippins, who is a candidate for governor, who finished in fourth place in the May primary. He went to sit down with Casey Cagle for an endorsement meeting. Little did Casey Cagle know that Clay had an iPhone tucked into his front jacket pocket and he hit the record button before. So in a pretty lengthy discussion, I understand it was about 90 minutes, they talk about all sorts of issues.
But the big part that Clay released to us and WSB-TV, is a nine-minute recording about a school scholarship organization bill that Casey Cagle said he backed even though he thought it was, in his words, “bad public policy.” He said he was willing to support what he called bad public policy that expanded the school tax credits to $100 million so he could prevent Hunter Hill, who at that time was in a really close battle with Brian Kemp for second place for a spot in the July 24 runoff, to prevent him from getting outside help from a group called The Walton Family Foundation. Then we had another sort of bombshell revelation a few days later.
JS: Right. (Clay Tippins’) uncle who was the senate education chairman, talked to us about how not only did the lieutenant governor support legislation to avoid or to keep Hunter Hill from getting money, that he supported another piece of legislation hoping that the same organization, which supports pro-choice, or parental choice, vouchers, that kind of stuff. Charter schools. Oh and by the way, Walton is the Walton family you think it is. It’s the Walmart family.
GB: So they’re loaded.
JS: Yes, they're loaded. They’ve got a little bit more money than me and you. So in that conversation, he said that the lieutenant governor was supporting legislation so that he could get money from the same organization. Which is a little bit different because in one instance, he's trying to prevent somebody else from getting money.
But it's a little bit different, I think, looked at it, at least legally, when somebody says, you know “I'm doing something for campaign contributions or money.”
GB: We have two separate instances. In one, we have Cagle’s own voice saying that he supported school tax credit legislation to prevent Hunter Hill from getting help from an outside group.
And in another we have Lindsey Tippins, who ended up resigning as education chairman, saying that not only did Cagle want him to support this other legislation that ended up boosting charter school funding, but he did so so he could get Walton Family Foundation to spend $2 million on his own campaign. Two different allegations that are both rocking the governor’s race.
JS: And in neither case did the lieutenant governor's campaign deny it. I guess you can't really deny a tape recording, but I guess you could deny the other part. So immediately people started talking about, particularly after the second story, was it legal for somebody to do that? It’s an interesting legal question whether you can out and out say I'm doing something to get a benefit.
GB: Yeah, let's say straight up here. Cagle has said he feels like there is none whatsoever legal ramifications for his actions. Legal experts say it would be a very tough case to build but they're very skeptical about whether anyone would even will file charges this close to a runoff. It does not look like that's gonna happen. And the Walton Family Foundation has said it did not end up spending money on the Georgia governor's race and that any speculation about its role and motives are, in their words, unfounded.
JS: I looked this up for one of your stories, but they start spending money in Georgia in 2012 when there was a Constitutional Amendment that provided another pathway to create charter schools and they they were big bank rollers in that, I want to say six hundred thousand dollars. Then they backed Gov. Deal’s Constitutional Amendment, then in 2016 (Deal) had a constitutional amendment to allow the state to take over failing schools and the family put $400,000 in that that failed pretty miserably. But other than that, it's not been like they bankrolled the Republican party or particular candidates. So, you know, it's kind of a little bit of a mystery or maybe it was just a rumor that was going around that they were going to put a lot of money in the race because they don't have that history.
GB: When they do spend money in Georgia, it's on issues. It’s not necessarily to support a particular candidate. That all being said, I asked Lieutenant Governor Cagle this direct question.
I said, “Why were you so caught up worries about Walton Family Foundation? Who told you they were going to spend money on Hunter Hill’s campaign?” And he said he had heard so many rumors and innuendo and again, his own words, called them rumor and innuendo and I guess they just got to him and he ended up citing them not only to Clay Tippins but also to his (Lindsey Tippins) who for a long time was the senate education chairman. And let's be very clear here, this is not some secret Tippins supporter. Even though his own nephew was running for governor, he early endorsed Casey Cagle and stuck by him, even when his nephew got in the race and through the primary, stuck with him.
He said he's so upset about what happened and he's only willing to talk about it now that this audio recording (is out). And he told his nephew by the way, that he was concerned about his plans to audio record. So he wasn't necessarily on board with the secret taping thing. But it was only after the secret tape came out. He's like, you know what this is sort of a relief to me that he can talk about it, is what he said.
JS: We talked about, “Why would you say that kind of stuff to an opponent?” But the other thing that’s interesting is, you and I spent a lot of time at the Capitol during this session. We would never report or act on rumors because there are so many of them. Our fingers could not fly on the keyboard fast enough.
GB: My phone is filled with them right now.
JS: Our fingers couldn't fly fast enough to post things if we posted rumors or believed rumors. I mean we check out things that we hear but we certainly wouldn't act on them. So it's interesting that this rumor the the whole idea of the lieutenant governor making decisions based on those possibilities was something that other senators told us that they had heard about during the session. To them it was it was a rumor that he was using a rumor. That's also interesting too, to not really know that but to act on it, essentially.
GB: I mean look, the Republican senators, whether or not they had their own misgivings about the bill, also overwhelmingly voted for both these bills. The school student scholarship organization bill, the tax credit bill increasing that credit to $100 million dollars passed with only three Republican no votes. And the charter school bill that increased funding by about $17 million dollars to state-sanctioned charter schools got only one Republican no vote. In both those cases, it was Lindsey Tippins.
In an interview with him last week, me and my colleague Jim Galloway were sitting in his living room up in Acworth. To say he got emotional is a little bit of an understatement. I mean, this is sort of a grizzled veteran lawmaker who usually doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve.
But when we started asking him about what happened with legislation, he did get emotional. At one point he was relaying how Casey Cagle ... told him, “You know, what nevermind all that. I don't care.” In his words, he said, “F this group and F their money. I don't care about this. I want to do what's right, and I want to do this for you. You're my friend Lindsey.” Lindsey took out a napkin and dabbed his eyes. I mean he was getting verklempt as we would say. But he said, “At that point, I realized that I had my friend back. That's the Casey I knew.” These guys go way back.
Then just a few days later, he passes this bill out of committee. And he finds out there is a floor amendment, which basically is a last-minute dramatic rewrite of the bill and that he had no say in it and it was going to happen.
JS: And he becomes Charlie Brown.
GB: He missed the football. He was the one Republican. It was a 35 to 1 vote, I remember correctly, on the Republican side of the Ledger that too many Democrats support it. To be the only Republican in the caucus, to be the education chief, right, I mean that really hurt him.
So when when we sat down with him to talk about this, he said it felt like a tremendous load off of his back that he was able to talk about this publicly and in some sense, even though he might not have agreed with what his nephew did, and he didn't really go into detail about the moral implications of the secret recording, but it did clear the pathway for him for him to come out.
And you know next year's gonna be a really interesting year to see him on the floor.
JS: That's going to be difficult for a long-time chairman of any committee. I remember last year there was a bill that had been killed several times, partly because we reported a lot on it.
It was a plan that the state would dump a bunch of money into startup companies, but it would be run through a few national financial interests. The chairman of the senate finance committee at the time wouldn't let the bill out of his committee.
(He) called it a scam on this and the floor of the Senate, but the lieutenant governor and the House Republican Caucus passed it and he probably felt kind of the same way. You've done the research, it’s your committee. You think it's bad policy, but then they go ahead and on last night of the session, vote for it anyways.
GB: In other cases we've seen, you have the chairman, the person who you think would be the the final voice on it saying their critiques of it but it still passes. But this case is so different because not only did Lindsey Tippins go to the floor of the Senate to talk about why lawmakers shouldn't pass this bill, we also have him now saying not only he was basically forced to pass this bill or it was pushed through the legislature, but also because Casey Cagle said he would get $2 million in outside funding and that's why we have all these these sort of criminal investigation calls from politicians from both sides of the aisle.
JS: Another thing that tells you a little bit about how this race is going. The day that story came out, really that night and then since then, the people that talk to me who were defending it or saying, “That's the way it is.That’s the way it always is. There's no story here, whatever.” Are all people that lobby. Or are agency people who spend a lot of time in the legislature and they're like, “there's no story there, this won't have any impact,” blah, blah, blah, blah. But a number of the legislators who go out and talk to their constituents and people outside the legislature are the ones who are like, you know, thinking this is a really big deal and is gonna have a fallout effect.
GB: And the flip side of the coin, the the people of the politicians calling for criminal investigations now are either supporters of Kemp or their Democrats. And we had this a couple days ago. We had two veteran Republican state legislators write a letter to B.J. Pak, who is the U.S. attorney, the head of the FBI in Atlanta and District Attorney Paul Howard, all urging them to launch an investigation into Casey Cagle whether or not he violated bribery laws with what they say is a pay-to-play scheme.
JS: That tells me a little bit about who they would like to see as the Republican nominee, doesn't it? They prefer the guy who, two months ago, they were accusing of pointing a shotgun at a kid and wanting to pick up illegal immigrants in his pickup truck and drive them to Mexico. The Democrats are probably gleeful thinking that they're going to have Brian Kemp as opposed to Casey Cagle as their opponent, which is interesting.
GB: Democrats have definitely jumped on that bandwagon. You have DuBose Porter, the head of the Democratic state party holding basically, it seems like daily, press conferences in some form or fashion featuring state lawmakers, teachers, parents all attacking, criticizing, assailing Casey Cagle. The other day they held a protest outside Casey Cagle campaign headquarters. One of the protesters, for some reason, was dressed as a dinosaur.
And Charlie Bailey, who is the Democratic nominee for attorney general, is out now saying publicly that if he were the state's top prosecutor, he would be launching an investigation ASAP. He says, “I don't know if there's any criminal wrongdoing, but where there's smoke there's fire” and that they have the duty to look into it. Chris Carr, he is the incumbent Republican attorney general, says that that's a rush to judgment and that everything that they do is thorough and they're not going to do any sort of political prosecution.
JS: The reality is that I've seen quite a few attorney generals in the state and covered quite a few. Attorney general's in this state do not generally involve themselves directly in politics like that and very seldom investigate politicians. The tendency is for them to hand off those kind of things or the appearance of what they're doing is handing it off to the U.S. attorney's office. So that's really a question almost for B.J. Pak as opposed to Chris Carr.
GB: Locals. Or Paul Howard, who's the D.A. of Fulton County.
JS: I'm not saying he can't do it, I'm just saying they don't. From Thurbert Baker. Michael Bowers was a hard-as-nails, tough guy attorney general, but they didn't investigate that many politicians.
GB: And also, not only did legal analysts question whether or not there is a criminal case here, there's also some offices and I don't know the particulars, but some offices tend to have policies saying they can't launch investigations within a certain time frame before an election.
JS: Like ethics commission. I don't remember if it's a policy. I think it is, but the ethics commission generally will not debate complaints a certain amount before the election. For a couple of decades at least, people would file complaints just to get headlines before an election so that's an agency that at least has tried to as much as possible keep politics out of what they do before an election.
GB: And look, earned media, getting getting those free headlines is definitely a huge part of Brian Kemp’s strategy.
He was tremendously outraised by Casey Cagle during the primary. We're not sure of how much money they're raising in this runoff cycle because we won’t get to see the numbers until early July but we can assume that Casey Cagle’s financial advantage remains pretty big. And we know for certain that outside groups are starting to pile in. This group, “Changing Georgia’s Future, a pro-Cagle outside group, just spent a quarter of a million dollars on ads attacking Brian Kemp and Cagle’s campaign is now in at least two ads since his first place finish in the primary. One of them is attacking Kemp and the other is boosting his own campaign and talking about the economy and sort of feel good issues. Brian Kemp has to try to keep running in his own dimension. He has been a lot less scathing than some of his surrogates. I'll put it that way.
JS: But that is typically what happens is the candidate wants to quote “stay above the fray.” It's not really true. But I mean he has people around him, who are the ones saying the damaging things.
GB: Because when he does get “in the fray” whether it be a form or debate or in a TV ad or, you know in a big media event, at an endorsement rally or whatever like that, it will still it would be another big piece of news because he's gonna try to sort of slow play this, because the election still six weeks away which is a long time.
JS: It’s a glacial, glacial age.
GB: Think about it this way, the South Carolina gubernatorial primary was last week and they have a runoff set for later on, I think it's later on this month. It’s before our runoff. It's still well before our runoff is in Georgia because of a 9-week rule that was adopted by a federal judge and lawmakers kind of went along with it.
We've got a really, really drawn out process. Meanwhile Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor is biding her time and loving it. She’s consolidated pretty much all Democratic support now. Stacey Evans, her primary opponent, highest-profile supporter was former Governor Roy Barnes who got on the Stacey Evans bandwagon really early.
He gave Stacey Evans a jolt of of legitimacy really early in her campaign by endorsing her way back. It was about a year ago. Well the other day he endorsed Stacey Abrams, I guess burying the hatchet into whatever lingering animosity or lingering divide there was between the two different Democratic camps. That tends to be uh soothed when Stacey Abrams wins by 52 plus. There can’t be too much of a dialogue about divided Democrats when your candidate gets more than three-quarters of the vote, right?
JS: You can't really be you can't really be too angry at that point or bitter at that point.
GB: And she's trying to seize on this whole secret tape recording by saying she's the only candidate who would not, in her words, vote to privatize schools. She had a big town hall the other day focused on not just education.
Every candidate for governor says they want to be the education governor. She says she will be the public education governor, emphasis on public.
JS: So that that's a the beginning of the campaign to say Republicans don't support public education, that they want to give vouchers to wealthy families so they can send their kids to private school and don't have to mix with the public school students. That's the beginning of the code language for what is kind of the typical education debate it seems like in the governor's race.
GB: It’s also going to be part of her general election strategy to focus even more so on education, on health care, on economy, on issues that are more of a broader base than some of the primary issues she focused on to appeal to the core Democratic voters. She's not running away from the, in her words, unapologetically progressive issues that she ran on in the primary, but we’re not going to see as big of a emphasis on them going to the general
JS: Those are the same issues. Yeah. That that politicians of run on forever. Zell Miller ran on those issues in 1990 when he beat Johnny isakson. You could lay out five different issues and those are going to be the same ones they are going to talk about. Education and jobs are always going to be the two near the top.
There will be obvious differences on a lot of social and other issues. Immigration and religious liberty, social legislation, those are going to be where there's like a huge amount of difference. But you know, if Casey Cagle or Brian Kemp, whoever wins the Republican nomination, they're gonna say they're going to be the education governor. And they’re going to say that they're going to create jobs. So they're going to be incredibly stark differences. No matter who wins the Republican nomination with Stacey Abrams, but for right now, yeah, why not talk about education.
GB: To be clear, (Republicans) are talking about jobs and the economy too, but they're also talking about a lot of the social legislation. But why? Because you might be lucky to scrape double digits with turnout on July 24 for this runoff and the people who are turning out tend to be the most core conservative.
You can call them Republican activists. The people who really are driven to the polls by certain issues. And a lot of them tend to be motivated by Second Amendment issues, by religious liberty, by some of those big issues that you know, you hear about all over the state when you go to these, Republican rallies and conventions.
JS: We did this story in April about how candidates running for insurance commissioner and secretary of state felt the need to lead their speeches to Republican voters on how much they supported the Second Amendment. They might all carry guns, but the insurance commissioner’s or the secretary of state is not going to have a word to say about any legislation on gun control or allowing a greater care in support of weapons. They're not going to have any say in that but they felt the need to. I used a quote in this story that the one of the candidates for insurance commissioner had four or five minutes to speak, and he started to speech talking about how much he supported the Second Amendment.
Now, you won't hear from him the rest of the time because he got beat in the primary and actually so did the secure State candidate come to think of it. Maybe we didn't help him. That just shows you if that's true in the primary, it’s probably doubly true in the runoff.
GB: One more race we wanted to address today. David Shafer against Geoff Duncan, runoff for lieutenant governor and Shafer sure seems like he's starting to consolidate Republicans.
JS: He was letting all of us know, repeatedly, the last year the various people who endorsed him including some people that who haven't been in politics for like 50 years and we had to look up who they were. He's worked really hard for endorsements and he's a guy who works really hard in politics.
He's knows what he's doing. I was very interested in, a week or two ago when he had Rick Jeffries, former senator who came in third place, endorsing him. You kind of expect the Senate Republicans to endorse him, although included in those endorsements was the senate majority leader who was quoted in the investigative report of the sexual harassment case against Sen. Shafer saying he believed the lobbyist who was involved in that. Sen. Shafer was exonerated in it. But even he was saying, you know, “I'm with Sen. Shafer” and now it was a today or in the last couple days a whole bunch of the House Republican leaders have gotten on the bandwagon. So it makes me think that they see the writing on the wall. If you’re a house member and you got a bill next session, you want the lieutenant governor. As Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle has said, he’s the guy who can stand in the way of legislation.
He can stop it. And so, smart move by the Republican, house members and house leaders to say, I'm going to be on board with the guy. He got 49% in the primary and you usually don't lose when you get 49 percent.
GB: I mean he was within a whisker of winning this race without a runoff. And usually, you know, when you have someone who does that well, the second place finisher comes under pressure to drop out because this won’t be nearly as costly as the governor's race, but it still can be really damaging for both the candidates involved. Sarah Riggs Amico is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. You have to be fooling yourself if you don't think she's watching for every little attack they’re lobbying back because she'll be able to use that in the general.
JS: She’s already is using sexual harassment stuff even though the case is over with.
GB: So there are some pressure on Duncan to drop out but his campaign made it really clear overnight. I got a text message early in the morning right after the May 22 vote. So early May 23 saying “not only we're not dropping out but we really believe,” this is their words “that if Shafer wins the nomination, the seat will flip to Democratic for the first time since Mark Taylor in 2006 held that seat.” (Taylor) ran for governor and Casey Cagle beat Ralph Reed in the Republican race to become the first Republican lieutenant governor in Georgia history. They think that if David Shafer is the nominee, this the seat will be right back in the Democratic hands.
JS: We've heard that before.
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