A new governor. A legion of fresh-faced lawmakers. The opening of another legislative session. And a farewell to Nathan Deal and other political stalwarts.
Monday will usher in a new political era in Georgia as Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp, other statewide officers and hundreds of lawmakers are sworn into office with a burst of pomp and pageantry.
It will also kick off another 40-day legislative session that will test Kemp and other political leaders as they wrangle over a budget that could top $27 billion, plans to hike teacher pay and significant changes to Georgia’s voting system. Here are five factors to watch:
Brian Kemp’s first day
After a bruising election, Kemp has pledged to unite Georgians behind his plans to give teachers $5,000 pay raises and crack down on violent gang offenders while also staying true to his conservative pledges to expand gun rights and sign a “religious liberty” measure.
His inaugural speech, to be delivered at 2 p.m. Monday at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, will set the tone for his first year in office. Expect a broad focus on working across party lines and building consensus — and none of the partisan attacks that proliferated on the campaign trail.
That’s just the start of a hectic week. Kemp is expected to outline some specifics Wednesday at the Georgia Chamber’s annual breakfast, and then sharpen the details and unveil his spending plan Thursday in his State of the State address. He’ll cap the week with his inaugural gala Thursday night.
New statewide officers
Kemp is but one player in a larger changing of the guard in Georgia politics. Geoff Duncan, a former Republican member of the state House, will become the titular head of the state Senate as lieutenant governor. How he will handle the chamber’s complicated politics could make or break legislation.
A slate of other GOP candidates won every other statewide post. Brad Raffensperger, another ex-legislator, will become Georgia’s top elections official as secretary of state. He’ll have to navigate the tangle of voting rights problems that surfaced during last year’s elections.
And newly elected Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck joins the group of incumbents who won new terms, including Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, Attorney General Chris Carr and state School Superintendent Richard Woods.
Fresh legislative faces
The legislative session will open with a range of rookies. A total of 42 freshmen will take office in the 236-seat Georgia Legislature, meaning that nearly one in six seats has changed hands since last year as incumbents lost re-election, ran for another office or retired.
Even as Republicans won every statewide office, a Democratic surge across the suburbs reshaped the Legislature. Democrats picked up 13 seats, all in metro Atlanta, to cut into the GOP majority in both chambers. Republicans still control the legislative branch, but Democrats plan to wield newfound clout.
That could have a far-ranging influence on the Legislature. Republican leaders pledge to focus more on economic issues than divisive social ones, worried that fights over culture-wars issues could further alienate moderates ahead of the 2020 presidential vote.
The Old Guard
The vast turnover in the statehouse will yield an entirely different power dynamic that could take months, or years, to shake out. And in the middle of all this change will be two battle-tested lawmakers with years of political experience.
House Speaker David Ralston, whose influence over the legislative process rivals the governor’s, forged a tight relationship with Deal over the past decade. Now he must corral his chamber’s raucous caucus to balance Kemp’s agenda with his own priorities.
And Butch Miller, the Senate president pro tem, will need his best salesman skills, honed over decades as a car dealer, to negotiate with a fractious chamber that will face pressure from conservatives on the right and emboldened liberal Democrats on the left.
Democrats return some of their most prominent figures, including House Minority Leader Bob Trammell and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving legislator in Georgia, will also be back. Add to that mix state Sen. Nikema Williams, who may soon become head of the state Democratic Party.
An emotional farewell
The new beginnings will mean goodbye for some of Georgia’s biggest political names, starting with Deal. After two terms in the Governor’s Mansion, and decades in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress, the Gainesville Republican will leave office to start a consulting firm and teach college courses.
Also bidding farewell will be Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was elected to the post in an upset victory in 2006 and lost to Kemp in July’s bitter GOP runoff for governor. And a sweep of high-profile lawmakers will relinquish their seats, including many who waged unsuccessful runs for other offices.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.
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