Still smarting from bruising political defeats, Gov. Brian Kemp raced to set a new tone at the state Capitol on Thursday with a State of the State address that avoided mention of most divisive issues and pledged to scale back a controversial law that was a focus of the summer protests for racial justice.
Under the heavily guarded Gold Dome, Kemp delivered a socially distanced speech to hundreds of lawmakers scattered across three rooms in the Statehouse that acknowledged the devastating Republican defeats of November and January, and staked out a more conciliatory approach.
He endorsed “significant reforms” to the state’s citizen’s arrest law, a more than 150-year-old statute that came under withering criticism after the 2020 death of Ahmaud Arbery, and proposed a one-time $1,000 payment to public school teachers and education workers.
And he defended his efforts to fight a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 10,500 Georgians and overburdened health care systems strained to the limits by the fall and winter surge.
“It’s time to put our differences aside. Put 2020 in the rearview. Let’s stand together as Georgians and clear the destruction caused by the storms of life,” he said. “Let’s clear away the conspiracy theories and the division. Let’s focus on the bountiful harvests to come.”
Notably absent from the speech was mention of conservative campaign promises that dominated his first legislative session in office two years ago, when he signed an anti-abortion bill that divided the Statehouse. This year, there was no talk of gun rights expansions, new crackdowns on illegal immigration or other base-pleasing initiatives.
And he also skirted the thorny topic of an overhaul of voting laws, though in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he unequivocally endorsed adding a photo ID requirement for absentee ballots, angering Democrats and voting rights activists who see it as restrictive.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Instead, Kemp seemed to send a message to fellow Republicans with a call to put aside the “ridiculous and harmful conspiracies” and move beyond the painful 2020 election and President Donald Trump’s ceaseless attempts to reverse the outcome.
“As we begin a new year, a new legislative session, there are some who want to look to the past, assign blame, settle old scores, and relive and relitigate 2020,” he said. “Today, I think we should take the advice of those wise farmers. Let’s clear the fields and start planting.”
The maneuvering might herald a new strategy for Kemp, who opened the year in a precarious political position, under fire from both conservatives and liberals after an epic election cycle as he prepared to run for a second term in 2022.
Georgia voted Democratic for president in November for the first time since 1992, and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock swept both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats this month, costing Republicans control of the chamber. Democrat Stacey Abrams is preparing to mount a probable rematch with Kemp, and her hard-bitten allies say they have no reason to believe Kemp.
“Do I think the governor is going to be more conciliatory? No. No I do not,” said state Rep. James Beverly, the top Democrat in the Georgia House. “His policies have shown who he is.”
The pressure from Kemp’s right is stifling, too. Trump and his allies have blamed the governor for the GOP defeats at the top of the ticket — Republicans fared better in down-ballot contests — and vowed to back a primary challenger after Kemp refused to illegally overturn the election results.
Kemp framed the speech as an engineer would, speaking of Georgia’s infrastructure as stout enough to weather the storms of a turbulent 2020, one that exacted a personal toll on Kemp with the death of Harrison Deal, a young Kelly Loeffler aide and “son we never had” who was killed in a December traffic accident.
“Despite incredible loss and unprecedented challenges, Georgia is still standing. Our house, built on a sure foundation, survived the storm. This state, while battered, is not broken. A better, brighter future is right around the corner,” he said to an ovation from the lawmakers.
“Yes, we still have challenges ahead, a virus to beat, an economy to rebuild and restore,” Kemp said. “But my fellow Georgians, the state of the state is resilient, and we will endure.”
‘A clear message’
Perhaps the most significant development in the speech was Kemp’s support to rewrite the law enacted in the 1800s that allows citizens to arrest people they believe to be committing a crime.
The many critics of the citizen’s arrest law from both sides of the aisle say it has been disproportionately invoked to justify the killings of Black victims, a grim reality that was underscored by Arbery’s shooting death in February near Brunswick.
Arbery was shot and killed after he was chased by three white men who falsely claimed he was robbing a house that was under construction, and local prosecutors cited the citizen’s arrest law in initially declining to charge the men.
His death became a rallying cry during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted over the summer, and the outrage spurred lawmakers to pass a hate-crimes law after nearly two decades of debate that strengthens penalties for those who commit crimes fueled by bias.
But advocates, including a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, have demanded more strident action. And Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, refused to attend last year’s signing ceremony for the hate-crimes bill in part because she was disappointed legislators didn’t address the citizen’s arrest statute.
Calling Arbery the victim of “a vigilante style of violence,” Kemp said his administration plans to overhaul an “antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”
“We can again send a clear message: Georgia is a state that protects all of its people and fights injustice wherever it is found,” he said.
Almost immediately after uttering those words, the divide over the law was on display. Across the hall in the Georgia Senate, Republican state Sen. Tyler Harper shook his head sharply in disagreement at Kemp’s plan. And Fair Fight, the advocacy group founded by Abrams, said in a social media message within minutes that revamping the “racist” law isn’t enough.
“The law must be repealed in its entirety, not simply reformed,” the group said.
Kemp, meanwhile, didn’t provide any new details of his support for tightening voter ID laws for mail-in ballots, which Republicans have assailed since record turnout helped Democrats flip Georgia.
In an interview, he told the AJC he is “reserving judgment” on proposals that seek to end at-will absentee voting, ban ballot drop boxes and restrict groups from sending out absentee ballot applications. But he said he wanted lawmakers to put the new photo ID requirements “front and center” on their agendas.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
If there was a prevailing theme of the address, it was the challenges wrought by the pandemic — and Kemp’s decision to aggressively reopen the state’s economy in the early months of the outbreak. His line that it was “the community, not the government, that pulled together to stop the spread” of a still-raging pandemic provoked sharp criticism from Democrats.
“I would not list that as an accomplishment if the people had elected me to be their chief executive,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from DeKalb County.
The governor didn’t unveil major new proposals aimed at containing the pandemic, aside from a call to expand a tax break for manufacturers of key medical and pharmaceutical equipment, but he hearkened back to the early days of the fight when “protecting lives was a minute-by-minute battle against a virus we knew little about.”
Citing “steady, significant progress,” Kemp urged Georgians to wash hands, heed safety guidelines and don masks to prevent the disease’s spread. To struggling Georgians, he said, his message is, “your state hears you, your governor hears you, and we have your back.”
And he expressed optimism moving forward, with a balky but growing vaccine infrastructure that has inoculated more than 283,000 Georgians from the disease.
“We also know that there are 283,000 reasons for hope and optimism,” he said, as applause echoed in the socially distanced House chambers. “We will get through this. We will get there, together.”
Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.