Capitol Recap: Kemp visit to Israel puts Georgia antisemitism bill back in spotlight

A trade delegation led by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, held a closed-door meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During that meeting, Netanyahu asked Kemp and others about the status of legislation in Georgia that would target antisemitism. Kemp’s executive counsel, David Dove, told Netanyahu that the measure would be up for debate again in 2024. Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

Credit: Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

A trade delegation led by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, held a closed-door meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During that meeting, Netanyahu asked Kemp and others about the status of legislation in Georgia that would target antisemitism. Kemp’s executive counsel, David Dove, told Netanyahu that the measure would be up for debate again in 2024. Israel GPO/Kobi Gideon

Netanyahu brings up measure that stalled this year in state Senate

Democratic state Rep. Esther Panitch was not part of a Georgia delegation that traveled to Israel on a trade mission headed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

But, as the only Jewish member of the General Assembly, her attendance at a U.S. Embassy reception for the group signaled that the delegation’s visit to the Holy Land isn’t just about business.

Panitch, who was visiting the country with her daughter Miriam when she got the embassy invite, is a key sponsor of House Bill 30, a measure to combat antisemitism that advanced through the Georgia House before stalling in the state Senate.

Kemp hasn’t publicly endorsed the measure, but Panitch said his trip to Israel “inspired me to believe that they understand why this is a fight we cannot afford to abandon or compromise.”

“Saying ‘never again’ includes making sure that we define antisemitism properly in order to make sure it doesn’t get the chance to take hold,” said Panitch, who lives in Sandy Springs.

HB 30 also came up during the delegation’s closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who questioned Kemp and others about the status of the legislation. Kemp’s executive counsel, David Dove, told Netanyahu that it was a two-year legislative session and that the measure would be up for debate again in 2024.

During the embassy reception, Kemp discussed other efforts in Georgia to combat discrimination, including a measure aimed at discouraging economic boycotts of Israel.

Kemp said the visit “further renews Georgia’s ties to this ancient land and demonstrates our loyalty as an ally, especially as we confront the rise of antisemitism in this current era.”

He added, “We will continue to stand with you in the face of that prejudice and say loudly: ‘Hate has no place in Georgia.’ ”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is unfazed by his appearance on a list of 500 U.S. officials and others that Russia has banned from traveling to the nation. "I accept that I’m not their cup of Russian tea,” Raffensperger said in a statement. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Georgia officials meet ban from Russia with jokes

Brad Raffensperger probably thought the only place he couldn’t go was Donald Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.

Now, Russia is a big nyet.

Moscow, St. Petersburg and even Vladivostok are off-limits to the Georgia secretary of state, one of 500 Americans who are banned from entering the country, accused of spreading Russophobia, aiding Ukraine or committing other “offenses.”

Other notables on the list, according to The Associated Press, include former President Barack Obama, comedian Stephen Colbert, two former U.S. ambassadors to Russia, several U.S. senators and dozens of members of the U.S. House. Other notable Georgians hit with the ban include Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Collins and Rich McCormick, plus Keisha Lance Bottoms a former mayor of Atlanta and aide to President Joe Biden.

The snub doesn’t appear to bother Raffensperger.

“While I was previously unaware of my anti-Russian activities, I accept the verdict of Russia, whose commitment to truth, justice and the rule of law speaks for itself,” he said in a statement. “I can see where my commitment to free, fair and accurate elections, my tendency to speak truth to power and strong stance against war crimes would offend President (Vladimir) Putin’s sensibilities. I accept that I’m not their cup of Russian tea.”

Like Raffensperger, Collins took the news well.

“Oh no! The thug with a gas station banned me from his country,” Collins said, apparently referencing the prominence of petroleum in Russia’s economy.

The list didn’t give reasons for each individual’s ban, but the Russian Foreign Ministry said its targets included “those in government and law enforcement agencies who are directly involved in the persecution of dissidents in the wake of the so-called storming of the Capitol.”

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and also once the Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, noted that while Raffensperger and several others on the list have no role in U.S. or Russian foreign policy, they likely gained Moscow’s attention because Trump has “publicly assailed them.”

Raffensperger notably refused Trump’s demand to find votes in Georgia to reverse his loss in the 2020 presidential race. That, in turn, helped spur a Fulton County special grand jury’s investigation into the election that could lead to an indictment against the former president.

Bottoms, a Trump critic, was caught unaware by her appearance on the list.

“I was banned from Russia and didn’t even know it,” she said in a tweet that included a laughing emoji.

Russia put out a similar list last year of 963 Americans. It included U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, although she has since become a prominent critic of U.S. aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's debut novel, "The Bluest Eye," was among those that were removed from library shelves in the Forsyth County school system for seven months.

Credit: Special

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Credit: Special

Feds say Forsyth schools’ book bans may have created ‘hostile environment’

Forsyth County Schools has agreed to a resolution with the federal government after it determined the system may have created a ‘hostile environment” for some students in the way it removed books from school libraries.

Under the resolution, the school system will communicate directly with students about the way it processed demands to ban books.

Parents and others flooded school board meetings to demand the removal of numerous titles. They said they were concerned about sexually explicit content, but many of the books were by authors of color and involved race. (About half the students in Forsyth — the state’s fifth-largest school district — are nonwhite.)

Other books that were removed involved gender identity or sexual orientation.

Forsyth removed eight books from middle and high school libraries in January 2022, including “The Bluest Eye,” the debut novel of Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Seven months later, after an in-depth review, the district restored seven of the books, but only on high school shelves.

Superintendent Jeff Bearden had ordered the temporary removal after parents raised concerns about explicit sexual content and LGBTQ+ subject matter.

In a letter earlier this month to Bearden, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights wrote that despite being notified that some students felt they were under attack, Forsyth’s messaging and other reactions “related to the book screening process were not designed to, and were insufficient to, ameliorate any resultant racially and sexually hostile environment.”

Forsyth avoided a potential court case by agreeing, in consultation with the Office of Civil Rights, to communicate to middle and high school students that the book removals were based on sexually explicit content, not the sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin or color of the book’s author or characters.

Federal law prohibits exclusionary and discriminatory practices based on these characteristics for any school that accepts U.S. funding under Title VI (race) and Title IX (gender).

“Our district will continue to follow federal and state laws, and local board policies and procedures, for media center materials,” a Forsyth spokeswoman said in a statement.

Book challenges have been on the rise nationally, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. They nearly doubled last year to more than 1,200, she said.

Early voters wait in line at the Joan P. Garner Library in Atlanta to cast ballots on Nov. 4 in Georgia's midterm elections. Georgia's voter turnout of 52% was the highest of any state in the South in the midterms. (John Spink /

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

Georgia’s voter turnout was tops in the South in 2022

Georgians went to the polls at a higher rate during the 2022 midterms than voters in any other Southern state.

About 52% of Georgia’s voting-eligible population cast ballots in November, ranking 13th in the nation, according to the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida. Nationwide, 46% of eligible voters turned out.

In the South, the two states that came closest in turnout to Georgia were Florida and North Carolina, both at 48%.

Michael McDonald, who runs the U.S. Elections Project, said competitive races often help drive up turnout, especially in states such as Georgia, where voters believe they can make a difference. Advertising, news coverage, door-knocking and campaign spending also contribute to turnout.

“People have a lot of information, they’re being told it’s going to be a close election, they believe their vote is going to matter more, and they’re being told the stakes are very high,” McDonald said. “So people become very interested.”

Voting laws can also make a difference, McDonald said. Election Day registration and vote-by-mail policies in some states can contribute to voter participation, while laws that limit access can hinder it.

Georgia’s 2021 voting law may have both hurt and helped turnout. The measure curtailed the use of ballot drop boxes, prohibited mass mailings of absentee ballot application forms and shortened the time available to request and return absentee ballots. But it also required a second Saturday of early voting in areas that didn’t previously offer it, and Sunday voting was allowed to continue in counties that choose to provide it.

Overall, 3.96 million Georgians went to the polls for November’s election, about the same number as in the midterms four years earlier. The turnout rate dipped, though, dropping from 54% to 52% because more people were registered in 2022.

Oregon topped the nation in 2022, with turnout at more than 62%. Following closely were Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Some of Georgia’s neighbors were among the lowest in turnout.

Tennessee finished at the bottom at 31%. Turnout rates in Alabama and Mississippi also were among the five lowest, along with those in Indiana and West Virginia.

Work resumes in effort to save Savannah military facility

Democratic U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are working with Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter to preserve the Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center.

In his budget last year, President Joe Biden called for shutting down the training center, saying that two similar facilities were more efficient. Eventually, under pressure from Georgia’s full congressional delegation, money for the Savannah center was included in last year’s budget.

Biden has not called for closing the center in this year’s budget, but he didn’t directly fund it either. The National Guard told Georgia lawmakers it will use money in other line items to keep the facility open, but members of the state’s delegation want it to be directly funded.

That’s what set in motion Warnock, Ossoff and Carter —who represents coastal Georgia — to work behind the scenes “to ensure the CRTC is fully operational.”

“I’ve successfully fought to protect the Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center because it’s good for our national security & for Coastal Georgia,” Warnock wrote on Twitter.

Analysts expect no surprises in Georgia’s U.S. House races in 2024

Outside of the presidential race, federal campaigns in Georgia could be quiet affairs in 2024.

Most of the state’s U.S. House races are essentially settled, according to an analysis by Matthew Klein and David Wasserman for the Cook Political Report.

Through redistricting following the 2020 census, they wrote, the GOP-led General Assembly succeeded in eliminating all competitive House districts, leaving Georgia with nine Republicans and five Democrats in that chamber.

“As it stands, there’s not much to chew on in the Peach State in 2024 besides the presidential race,” Klein and Wasserman wrote.

That could change, they said, if one or two of the state’s congressmen choose not to seek reelection. They suggested U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, at age 76, and U.S. Rep. David Scott, at 77, as possibilities. If either bowed out, Klein and Wasserman wrote, it could create “opportunities for Black Democrats to move up.”

They predicted the political map won’t remain so stable in the near future, especially as Atlanta’s suburbs grow more Democratic. Klein and Wasserman called Republican U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick’s 6th Congressional District a “ticking time bomb for the GOP.”

Another suburban seat could open up in 2026 if U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, makes a run for governor. “There have long been whispers that she may eventually make a bid,” Klein and Wasserman wrote.

Political expedience

  • Two presidential candidates: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, now running for president, has been added to the list of speakers for the state Republican convention June 9-10 in Columbus. Hutchinson is one of the GOP’s most prominent critics of former President Donald Trump, who is seeking a return to the White House and is also scheduled to speak at the state convention.
  • Airport upgrades: U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock announced $12.3 million in federal grants to be divided among four regional airports in Georgia. The money will be used for improvements at Cherokee County Airport in Canton, Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Savannah and Thomasville Regional Airport in Thomasville. The funds are coming from the Airport Improvement Program created by the bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed last year. The bill included roughly $619 million for Georgia airports.
  • A flat-out challenge of consensus: Kandiss Taylor, the new GOP chair for Georgia’s 1st District, gave an interview that appeared this past week on Right Wing Watch that offered some things to think about on the horizon, although they came out flat. Taylor indicated she’s not 100% certain, but she’s questioning whether Earth is round. “Everywhere there’s globes. You see them all the time. It’s constant,” Taylor told David Weiss, the host of the Flat Earth podcast. “My children will be like ‘Mama, globe, globe, globe, globe’ — they’re everywhere.” She then added: “That’s what they do to brainwash. For me, if it’s not a conspiracy, if it is real, why are you pushing so hard everywhere I go? Every store, you buy a globe, there’s globes everywhere. … Why? More and more I’m like, it doesn’t make sense.”