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Still in campaign mode: As Kemp hits the road, Democrats keep up heat

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp is taking a cue from President Donald Trump with a frenzy of campaign-style events before his inauguration to thank supporters and rev up the Republican base shortly before he takes office.

Georgia Democrats, heeding their own hard-fought lessons of the Trump era, are raising many of the same issues they did during last year’s election with the aim of denying Kemp a honeymoon period after his Jan. 14 swearing-in ceremony.

They herald the start of a more volatile political atmosphere after a bruising campaign for governor that ended with Kemp’s narrow victory and Democrat Stacey Abrams’ refusal to formally concede the contest. And the tone will surely intensify as the dawn of a new legislative session nears and the 2020 presidential race looms.

Abrams has remained remarkably politically active, bucking the traditional role of a runner-up who retreats from the spotlight, as she prepares for what could be a rematch against Kemp in 2022 or, less likely, a challenge to U.S. Sen. David Perdue in two years.

Her newly launched Fair Fight Action group filed a far-ranging lawsuit targeting the state’s electoral policies. And in media interviews and public events, she has continued to call Kemp an “architect of voter suppression.”

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“This was not a function of loss,” Abrams said Friday on a local TV talk show. “We didn’t win. But that’s because the person in charge of determining the winner and the loser got to control the scoreboard, the scorekeeping, and he got to be the contestant.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia has taken an even sharper tack. Outgoing party Chairman DuBose Porter, in a farewell message, labeled Kemp a “morally corrupt man” who cheated to win. And the party financed new digital ads this week reminding voters of Kemp’s troubled investments in an agricultural firm.

It’s an edgier approach from the state party, which campaigned hard against Gov. Nathan Deal during his 2014 re-election bid but largely dialed back its criticism of him during his second term. Taken together, they’re an ear-splitting signal that Georgia Democrats don’t intend to let up against Kemp when he takes office.

Former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, a Marietta Democrat, put it this way: “They need to know that Democrats aren’t going to roll over and play dead anymore. Democrats want a seat at the table.”

A secretive start

Whether Kemp will stake out more middle ground after a campaign geared toward driving Trump supporters and other conservatives to the polls is not yet known.

Kemp has said he won’t retreat from the conservative policies he embraced on the campaign trail, but he and other GOP leaders signaled they are more likely to focus on economic issues than polarizing social debates during his first year in office.

In his most significant address since taking office, Kemp told state lawmakers “it’s time to put politics behind us” and work together. But he’s outlined few specifics about his legislative agenda and kept many details — including who will fill key administration posts — a closely guarded secret.

He hasn’t unveiled any appointments to the state agencies, departments or councils he’ll soon control, and many current Deal administration officials privately say they’re in limbo. Nor has he announced the successor to retiring Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, one of the most visible roles in state government.

And he’s only named a handful of staff hires, including tapping longtime aide Tim Fleming as his chief of staff. Fleming first met Kemp as a volunteer for his state Senate campaign in 2002 and most recently managed his campaign for governor.

More details should emerge next week as Kemp embarks on a slate of nine “Georgia First Celebration” events across the state that mirror his hectic campaign bus tour schedules — and the nine-city “thank you” tour that Trump launched after his 2016 win.

Kemp will start Wednesday with visits to an Augusta club and a Savannah convention center, followed by trips to a Fort Valley event space, a peanut warehouse in Blakely and a supporter’s farm in Chula. The tour will end with events in Columbus, Whitesburg, Gainesville and Dalton.

The stops will serve as a preview to his Jan. 14 inauguration at McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech, where he kicks off a string of events in metro Atlanta to launch his first week as governor.

‘Stay in my lane’

He’ll be greeted by a Democratic Party that’s eager to wield newfound clout.

Republicans still control all the levers of power in Georgia government, including the state Legislature. But by flipping about a dozen seats across the Atlanta suburbs, Democrats have more power than any time since Deal was first elected in 2010.

That means they’ll have enough votes to block constitutional amendments if the caucus holds together, and they can potentially defeat other proposals by picking off a handful of Republican votes.

Some Democrats are wary of the sharper approach. State Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about working with the Kemp administration. And state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving legislator in Georgia, has warned fellow lawmakers not to be too abrasive.

“As an elected official, my job is to create public policy. That’s what I got elected to do,” said Smyre, a Columbus insurance executive. “I’m going to stay in my lane. The campaign is over, the legislative session is about to start and we’ve got to get to work.”

The state party, though, has more freedom and flexibility to pounce. Porter, the outgoing chairman, said Kemp’s policies as secretary of state “silenced” an untold number of voters who could have swayed the election and urged his successor to intensify efforts to register more Georgians.

And the party’s new ads highlight the roughly $10 million in loans that Kemp has promised to cover for Hart AgStrong, a northeast Georgia agricultural firm he invested in that has faced financial turmoil since a costly expansion to Kentucky.

A lawsuit is still pending from a well-connected financier who claims Kemp has failed to repay a $500,000 loan he negotiated for Hart AgStrong. Financial records show two other loans, totaling $600,000, were due in late December.

“Those shady loans that haunted him during the election? They still haven’t been paid. That’s right. He hasn’t made a single payment,” a narrator says in the ad. “Kemp is liable for $600,000 in loans at the end of this month. Will he pay them, or will he pad his pockets with free money?”

Kemp’s office declined to comment on the status of his loans, but the Georgia GOP responded to the ad by invoking Abrams’ own financial difficulties. She reported owing roughly $54,000 in federal taxes and is on a payment plan to settle the debt.

“We thought about posting a similar tweet calling for Abrams’ unpaid tax bill but decided Georgians deserved at least one politics-free night in 2018,” Georgia GOP Executive Director Carmen Foskey said.

“The election is over,” she said, “though you wouldn’t know it by the Democrats’ inability to let it go.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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