‘You can’t run from your roots.’ Kemp sticks to conservative approach

Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp sits for an interview Monday with The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News at his transition office in the state Capitol. Kemp said he will pursue promises he made during the primary stage of the election to enact new abortion restrictions and expand gun rights. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp sits for an interview Monday with The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News at his transition office in the state Capitol. Kemp said he will pursue promises he made during the primary stage of the election to enact new abortion restrictions and expand gun rights. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp emerged from his narrow victory resolved to pursue the conservative campaign promises that helped energize Republicans to secure him a record number of gubernatorial votes, even if that means wading deep into divisive social debates.

Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News in an exclusive interview Monday that he will not retreat from pledges to enact new abortion restrictions or gun rights expansions, even as he pushes for teacher pay raises and other initiatives aimed at a broader electorate.

“Everything I’ve talked about in the campaign I’m planning on doing. That’s something I’ve prided myself on: doing exactly what I tell people when I’m running,” he said.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. And I’m going to continue to do that,” Kemp added. “I’ve been a strong supporter of life. And I’m going to continue to do that. I’ve been a conservative when it comes to budgeting issues and streamlining government.

“That’s what Georgians want — someone who is going to go to work.”

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Kemp underscored his conservative approach by unveiling a transition team on Monday studded with dozens of well-known Republicans. The group included state legislators, conservative activists, prominent financiers and former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Asked whether the transition team was a sign that he’s not abandoning conservative policies in pursuit of a more moderate stance, Kemp was swift to concur.

“You can’t run from your roots of who you are. But those conservatives, many of them worked across the aisle in the Legislature or on the local level or in their communities,” he said. “And that’s what they’ll do on the committee to move the agenda forward to help all Georgians.”

Whether he ultimately pursues more centrist policies after his narrow defeat of Democrat Stacey Abrams remains unknown. He doesn’t take office until January, and over the next two months his transition team will hone his policies, hash out a budget plan and suggest appointments to top posts.

But some critics are urging Kemp to take a broader approach after he won the election with just 50.2 percent of the vote thanks to huge margins in rural Georgia that overcame Democratic dominance in densely populated areas, including metro Atlanta.

“I understand the desire and need to placate one’s base,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a suburban Atlanta Democrat who coasted to another term.

“But the clear lesson of the election is that approach has serious long-term risks. The governor-elect won by only 1.4 percent of the vote — and that’s with him overseeing the election,” Holcomb said. “He has very little margin of error, and he risks further alienating the most populous and growing parts of the state.”

‘What I’m focused on’

The Republican suggested his first-year agenda will almost certainly include a teacher pay package that will top $600 million, a proposal to cut taxes and business regulations, and an increase of a popular tax credit program designed to shore up struggling rural hospitals.

But he also made clear he's not running from social issues, such as his support for legislation known as "constitutional carry" that would let gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit, or his vow to "sign the toughest abortion laws in the country."

That also includes support for a contentious "religious liberty" proposal despite threats from some Hollywood actors and executives to boycott the state and its booming film industry. They warn it would amount to legalized discrimination and tarnish the state's business reputation.

Kemp and other supporters say such a measure would protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. And he repeated his stance that he would only support a mirror copy of the version of federal law adopted in 1993 by a bipartisan vote.

“I support the exact language that’s in the federal statute now. It protects religious freedom, which we should absolutely do. It does not discriminate,” he said. “And I’ve been very clear on that. I’ll veto anything less and I’ll veto anything more.”

The former secretary of state said he was not dwelling on Abrams' refusal to call the election "legitimate" or her fiery words accusing him of abusing his office. And he was dismissive of the litigation her new advocacy group, Fair Fight Georgia, was planning to file this week targeting his "gross mismanagement" of elections.

“They’ve been filing all kinds of lawsuits. A lot of good resources were wasted on some of these ridiculous lawsuits. What she does in the future is her business,” he said. “I’ve got to be the governor of the state, and that’s going to be my business. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Kemp, however, hinted that he was open to legislation next year that goes beyond replacing outdated voting equipment to include new standards on some voting policies. He would not elaborate but said any action should address concerns from local elections officials and take a "methodical" approach.

“I’ve said all along you have to have an orderly process,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is to move quickly and not have it work.”

‘I guarantee you’

Kemp's transition team telegraphed his embrace of the conservative wing of the party. The most prominent name was Price, an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act who resigned from his post in President Donald Trump's Cabinet amid scandal in September 2017 after racking up at least $1 million in travel on private and military jets.

Kemp said Price, an orthopedic surgeon and former U.S. House member, will help him hone health care policy that includes a staunch opposition to expanding Medicaid but a promise to seek federal waivers to help stabilize insurance premiums.

“He’s a very smart man. He’s dealt a lot on health care, and all of the situations he’s been in over the years, he’s certainly learned a lot,” Kemp said. “He brings a lot of value, and you can see from the team we have a very diverse team from a lot of different backgrounds.”

Other members of the group include Virginia Galloway of the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative advocacy group; Alec Poitevint, a Sonny Perdue ally and former Republican National Committee leader; and ex-U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, who ran for president in 2008 as a Libertarian.

Even as he pointed toward the future, Kemp also invoked the past: His razor-thin election victory in 2002 over Democratic state Sen. Doug Haines, a victory in a left-leaning Athens-based district that launched his political career.

That tight win has become a touchstone for Kemp in the weeks after his defeat of Abrams left a significant portion of the Democratic electorate furious — and convinced he leveraged his role as the state's top elections official to suppress votes.

Kemp said he was bombarded with criticism after his victory 16 years ago, as neighbors and community leaders predicted he would be "terrible for the district."

“But you know what I did? I did exactly what I said I would do. I represented the values of our district. I worked hard to cut taxes and streamline government,” he said. “You want someone who’s up there fighting for you. I guarantee you I’ll do that.”

He sees this election through a similar lens.

“I’ve got a great opportunity,” he said, “to prove people who didn’t vote for me wrong.”

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