Capitol Recap: Kemp hands out big COVID-19 grants just before primary

$415 million in federal relief money to help businesses, nonprofits

Eight days before the GOP primary, Gov. Brian Kemp dished out $415 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help businesses and nonprofits overcome the economic impact of the pandemic.

Kemp had originally planned to announce the awards in January to distribute a share of the $4.8 billion Georgia is expected to receive as part of a coronavirus stimulus package that congressional Democrats approved in March 2021.

So far, the state has received $2.4 billion of the money through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, legislation some Georgia Republicans opposed, saying the state didn’t need that much money while also criticizing the measure for not giving Georgia a fair share.

For his part, Kemp said the legislation “represents everything that is wrong with Washington.”

Now, with the addition of the past week’s announcement, Kemp has committed or spent about $1.8 billion of the state’s portion.

Kemp, who is running for reelection, has used the powers of incumbency in an attempt to thwart a Republican primary challenge by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. He’s turned bill-signings into public events, especially for legislation popular with conservatives, such as a rollback of gun restrictions and an effort to direct how race is taught in classrooms. He even went to Perdue’s hometown diner to sign a huge tax cut.

Kemp has also helped spread around a lot of money, with a record $30.2 billion budget that delivers raises to teachers and state employees. That, too, had a strong connection to the massive amount of federal COVID-19 relief funding that went directly to Georgia households, as well as state and local governments. That money helped fuel soaring tax collections that resulted in a $3.7 billion state surplus for the past fiscal year.

The federal funds Kemp gave out this past week follow similar grants he issued in February to fund water and sewer and broadband projects.

All those grants were given based on recommendations by committees of lawmakers and state officials that Kemp appointed last year to review applications. In all, the state received about 1,500 applications for spending the COVID-19 money.

The largest chunk of the money handed out this past week was $150 million that will go to the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association to be distributed to hotel owners who were hit hard by the pandemic.

“This grant is so important to Georgians — every single hotel property in the state has suffered significant loss since March 2020,” said Brad Koeneman, general manager of Hilton Atlanta and chairman of the association.

A pair of sizable grants were also given to nonprofits.

The Georgia Investments in Housing Grant will provide $100 million to support nonprofits that provide affordable housing and aid the homeless.

The Victims Service Provider Grant will use $50 million to help nonprofits that have faced economic hardship during the pandemic.

Other smaller grants were awarded to locally based groups, including roughly $29.6 million to the Atlanta Community Food Bank to address food insecurity issues and $12.7 million to Buckhead Christian Ministries to pay for expansion of its emergency assistance program.

Dana Deweese. right, with the secretary of state's office, gives an update to the State Election Board on an investigation into allegations of "ballot harvesting" during the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. The investigations have not validated claims made in a move called "2000 Mules" that claims the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Miguel Martinez/

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

State board dismisses film’s allegations of ‘ballot harvesting’

Allegations of “ballot harvesting” during the 2020 presidential election in Georgia have, so far, failed to stand up to the test of investigation.

The claims were raised in the film “2000 Mules,” which incudes surveillance video showing a man inserting five absentee ballots into a Gwinnett County drop box.

That would appear to be ballot harvesting — the collection and delivery of multiple absentee ballots. But a state investigator confirmed, after tracking license plates and interviewing voters, that the ballots belonged to members of the man’s family who live in the same household. That is permitted under Georgia law, as is the delivery of ballots by caregivers for disabled voters.

The State Election Board voted unanimously this past week to dismiss that case and two others after the investigator reported that he tracked license plate numbers and interviewed voters who verified the family connection.

“Just because something looks compelling doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” said Matt Mashburn, the Republican chairman of the State Election Board. “We wanted to reassure the public that yes, we have seen the videos, we are taking them very seriously, we’re tracking every one of them down, and we’ll report back to you what we find.”

So far, what the board has found does nothing to validate the allegations in “2000 Mules,” which theorizes that 2,000 people in Georgia and four other swing states collected and delivered multiple absentee ballots to drop boxes in order to steal the election from Republican Donald Trump.

Conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza made the film, which promotes allegations by a Texas-based organization called True the Vote, that are based on drop box surveillance video and cellphone location data it gathered.

The GBI reviewed True the Vote’s allegations in the fall and found they lacked sufficient evidence to merit a law enforcement investigation.

“What has not been provided is any other kind of evidence that ties these cellphones to ballot harvesting,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds wrote in a Sept. 30 letter. “As it exists, the data, while curious, does not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime has been committed.”

The State Election Board issued subpoenas last month to True the Vote seeking documents, recordings and names of individuals involved in the alleged ballot harvesting. True the Vote has yet to comply.

Even if ballot harvesting occurred, it wouldn’t invalidate legitimate ballots that were returned by unauthorized individuals. Verified ballots of registered voters still count, regardless of how they were delivered.

Gary Black, left, says he will not support Herschel Walker in November if Walker beats him to win Tuesday's GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Citing allegations that Walker has threatened several women, Black said, "He has not earned my vote."

Credit: File photo

icon to expand image

Credit: File photo

Walker continues to take hits from opponents in Senate race

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker is so confident he’s going to win Tuesday’s primary — thanks to strong numbers in both polling and fundraising — that he’s ready to party.

He’s invited the five other contenders in the GOP contest to be his guests for a “unity celebration.”

But they’re not prepared yet to play nice.

Former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler and Air Force veteran Kelvin King have upped their criticism of Walker over his refusal to participate in debates and forums.

Saddler has slammed Walker in a new television ad for dodging public appearances with other Republican candidates.

“If Herschel Walker won’t debate me, he will lose to (Democratic U.S. Sen.) Raphael Warnock,” Saddler says in the ad.

But Gary Black, the state’s outgoing agriculture commissioner, has delivered the hardest hits on the former football star, many of them focusing on Walker’s history of violence.

Black is no longer just opposing Walker in the primary. If Walker gets the nomination, Black says he won’t support him in November.

“He hasn’t earned my vote,” Black said, citing a history of allegations that Walker threatened women.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that an ex-girlfriend of Walker’s told police in 2012 that when she tried to end what she said was a long romantic relationship, he threatened to “blow her head off” and then kill himself.

CNN uncovered a police report from a Texas woman who had been a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who told authorities in 2002 that Walker had threatened and stalked her.

Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, obtained a protective order in 2005 after alleging that he had threatened to shoot her in the head.

Walker’s campaign has cited his candor about his past, including a 2008 memoir that highlighted his struggle with mental illness.

While Walker has largely chosen to ignore his GOP rivals, saying he doesn’t want to give them any free publicity, his campaign issued a rare, and tough, response to Black’s comments.

“Gary’s ego continues to get in the way of good judgment, but we’re focused on beating Warnock,” a Walker official said. “It’s a sad ending to a solid career.”

When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, campaigned with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Kemp's Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, pointed out in a tweet that Christie ran a state that fully expanded Medicaid, something Kemp has blocked in Georgia.

icon to expand image

Dems use Kemp campaign events to promote Medicaid expansion

Democrats found a way to turn Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent campaign appearances with big-name Republicans to promote the policies of their gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams.

When word came out that Kemp would be campaigning with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, once the governor of Indiana, the Democrats did their best to remind Georgians that both those men led states that have expanded Medicaid to more people.

For Christie’s appearance, Abrams shot out a tweet hitting Kemp for blocking a plan to provide coverage under the federal-state public health plan for the poor and disabled to Georgians with HIV.

“Today,” she wrote, “Chris Christie (who expanded Medicaid in New Jersey) is appearing with Brian Kemp, who deprives 500,000+ Georgians of Medicaid access and just vetoed access for Georgians living with HIV. Kemp doesn’t care, so Georgians suffer while our tax dollars flow to 38 other states.”

Abrams has made Medicaid expansion a top priority on her platform.

It was also a key point of contention in the 2018 race between Abrams and Kemp.

Abrams sought an expansion of Medicaid that would, according to estimates, cover at least 400,000 additional Georgians in need of health insurance.

Like other Republicans, Kemp has said that full expansion would be too expensive for Georgia, although the federal government would pick up 90% of the costs for newly eligible adults.

As governor, Kemp has backed a narrower alternative, a program that would allow Georgia to impose a work and activity requirement for some lower-income Georgians to qualify for health coverage under Medicaid. Kemp’s administration has estimated that it would cover about 50,000 of Georgia’s poor adults.

The state received a waiver from the Trump administration to allow the work requirement, but the Biden administration put that on hold. The state is now fighting for restoration of the waiver in court.

Politically expedient

  • Talks underway to maintain pause on gas tax: Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said he is negotiating with lawmakers to extend the temporary suspension of the state’s sales tax on gasoline of 29.1 cents per gallon. It’s currently set to expire May 31.
  • Infant formula measure divides Georgia’s U.S. House members: Georgia’s delegation split along party lines in a U.S. House vote on $28 million in emergency funding to ease the nation’s shortage of infant formula. Georgia Democrats were in favor of the bill, which passed on a 231-192 vote. A separate proposal saw much more bipartisan support in giving more flexibility to purchase different formula brands to families in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. It passed on a 414-9 vote, with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene the only Georgian to oppose the measure.
  • New, new job for Smyre: It probably won’t mean a change in wardrobe, but there has been a change in plans for Calvin Smyre. The Democrat from Columbus, who just completed his final legislative session in the state House, was to become the Biden administration ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Now, though, he’s been nominated to serve as ambassador to the Bahamas. His appointment still requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
  • Abrams group backs (drumroll, please) Abrams: Winning the group’s endorsement was probably not the reason Stacey Abrams created Fair Fight Action after losing the 2018 race for governor, but it’s a nice fringe benefit. Besides backing the Democrat’s second bid for the Governor’s Mansion, the voting rights organization is endorsing U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s run for reelection and state Rep. Bee Nguyen’s campaign for secretary of state.
  • Dad gives to PAC that’s helping son’s congressional run: Jake Evans’ bid in the 6th Congressional District GOP primary, got a big hand from his father, Randy Evans, the Georgia Republican insider who served as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg during the Trump administration. The elder Evans gave $475,000 to Trailblazer PAC, which has focused attacks on Rich McCormick, another candidate in the primary.
  • Jones campaign records don’t show use of plane: Republican state Sen. Burt Jones has been using his family’s private plane to attend campaign events across the state in his run for lieutenant governor. But Jones has not reported expenses for the plane in his campaign finance documents. When contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Jones spokesman said the campaign’s intent is to pay one large lump sum after Tuesday’s primary for all the flights taken during the primary campaign season. State campaign finance law, however, says candidates “must disclose (expenses made) on the campaign contribution disclosure report due for the reporting period in which the flight occurred.”
  • Loeffler partners with anti-abortion group: Former Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has formed a partnership with SBA List, a Washington-based group that supports female candidates who oppose abortion rights. As part of the deal, Loeffler will make a six-figure contribution to more than 20 Georgia organizations, including pregnancy centers, faith-based groups, and adoption and foster care programs.

Elsewhere online

Other stories about Georgia government and politics can be found at