Georgia clout under Biden will be potent but less formal

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

WASHINGTON — Georgians will play a key role in the new balance of power now that Joe Biden is in the White House, even though no high-profile former state officials are part of the president’s Cabinet.

Georgians are exerting a different sort of influence, one earned by winning elections in ways that have benefited Biden. Georgia is the only state in the Deep South that Biden carried, and its voters are solely responsible for the U.S. Senate flip that makes it possible for him to carry out a more aggressive legislative agenda.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have a direct line to the White House that they can use to request resources or shape policies. Georgia U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock may play an outsized role despite their rookie status, given the impact of their upset victories.

And Biden’s White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield, is a Georgia native and Riverwood High School graduate.

Still, it’s a less direct kind of power than Georgia Republicans enjoyed during President Donald Trump’s four years in office.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s agriculture secretary, was one of few Cabinet secretaries and top aides who remained in their jobs throughout the Republican’s tenure. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Price was Trump’s first pick for health secretary before resigning in disgrace, and top aides such as Nick Ayers and Brian Jack helped shape his policy and political decisions.

Republican officials credited that sway for helping the state push priorities, such as the deepening of Savannah’s port. In other instances, though, there was little to show for the influence. After Hurricane Michael ravaged South Georgia in 2018, Gov. Brian Kemp and other state officials pleaded with Washington for the better part of a year for swifter financial help for farmers and others devastated by the storm.

One of the highest-profile Georgians in Washington is actually a holdover from the Trump administration: FBI Director Chris Wray, an Atlanta attorney who was tapped to head the bureau in 2017 after Trump fired his predecessor, James Comey. Biden’s administration said he has “confidence” in Wray’s ability and hinted that the president would keep him on for his full 10-year term.

Clayton State University political science professor Joshua Meddaugh said Biden will look to Georgia Democrats not only for help passing his legislative agenda but also for duplicating his successes across other parts of the South.

“It’s mutually beneficial to both sides — to the state and to the president — to work together and potentially make gains in other areas where there is a high African American population,” Meddaugh said.

New era

One of the key players from Georgia in Biden world is Bottoms, an important early campaign supporter who was recently awarded a vice chairmanship slot with the Democratic National Committee. In that role, she’ll continue to be a surrogate for Biden while also overseeing key outreach initiatives.

“I think that this really speaks to the value seen of Atlanta on the national stage, that I have been invited to serve in this role,” Bottoms told reporters on Thursday.

Already, she is advocating for a more robust role for the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which she said needs to be reinvigorated after being sidelined and politicized during Trump’s tenure. And she noted that the rising crime rates experienced by Atlanta and other cities last year could be better addressed by coordinating with federal agencies.

“We know the CDC, at least at the top level, has had some challenges under the Trump administration, but I’m confident with the Biden administration that we’ll get the support that we need in this area,” Bottoms said, adding that she also hoped the Justice Department would “provide us resources and guidance as it relates to crime-fighting.”

Abrams had already built a national profile when she narrowly lost the governor’s race in 2018, but it grew during the 2020 campaign as it became clear her “playbook” for Georgia was a winning formula. Biden has praised her as a singular force in national politics.

Although she has no formal role with his administration or the state or national Democratic Party, she is widely regarded as a barrier-breaking organizer who will have a voice in Washington. She is expected to use her influence on topics such as coronavirus recovery, climate change and voting rights.

For years, Republicans have focused on consolidating power at the state and local levels in Georgia. And if Abrams mounts a 2022 bid for governor and wins, Meddaugh said, Biden would gain a partner in a Southern battleground state to help further his proposals.

The members of Georgia’s U.S. House Democratic delegation are working to assert themselves in the Biden administration, too. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux was the only Democrat nationwide to flip a U.S. House seat from red to blue during the general election, and this week she joined the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 28 Democrats and 28 Republicans seeking middle ground in Congress.

“When we strip away the rhetoric, there is a lot that we actually agree on. We all want a good future for our children,” Bourdeaux, who lives in Suwanee, said of her decision. “We all want a strong democracy and a strong economy.”

Williams won the Atlanta congressional seat that was previously held by civil rights hero John Lewis; that fact alone has raised her profile in the House. She also continues to pull double duty as chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

She was optimistic about the state’s role in Washington affairs in the moments before Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. It isn’t lost on her that Black voters in Georgia helped Biden carry the state and sweep the two U.S. Senate races.

“It’s not just about the symbolism, it’s about the work that I know that we’re going to be able to get done on behalf of people in this country who for far too long needed someone standing up for us,” Williams said.

More senior members of the delegation hold important chairmanships that ensure they will have the ear of the White House. U.S. Rep. David Scott is the first Black chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds agriculture, rural developments and the Food and Drug Administration.

Bishop also serves on the committee that determines the budget for military bases and installations, and another that decides funding for the financial services industry, a sector that Atlanta has come to depend upon.

He said Georgia delivered for Biden in November and January, and now he will be working to make sure the White House delivers for Georgia.

“Once the election is done and we go to governing, we are very, very focused on trying to get the tools of government ramped up so that we will be able to deliver in all areas of need for people of the state of Georgia,” he said. “I think there will will be a much more cooperative relationship because we have the same agenda.”

Staff writer J.D. Capelouto contributed to this article.