Brian Kemp was sworn into office Thursday for a second term as the state’s governor making a promise to steer clear of “pie in the sky” ideals and commit instead to fighting economic turbulence, strengthening public safety and hiking salaries for teachers and other state workers.

In a no-frills inauguration address that echoed his reelection message, the Republican invoked lessons of a first term shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and a contentious 2020 election by fixating on “real people, real families, real communities” and not reactionary politics.

“The deal we offered voters was that your state government should care a lot more about safe streets, good schools and good-paying jobs than what pundits are saying on cable news,” he said, adding that his mantra for a second term is to “put you and your families first.”

“Over the next four years, we’re going to be focused on growing Georgia,” he told a crowd of hundreds at the newly built Georgia State Convocation Center. “Not growing government.”

As he approaches a second term, Kemp must balance his rising political profile with the challenge of leading one of the nation’s most politically competitive states. He’s backed by a largely cooperative state Legislature — including new GOP legislative leaders unlikely to war with him — and a robust balance sheet.

In fact, he’ll devote much of the 40-day session negotiating with lawmakers on a record-setting budget and how to spend a surplus that tops $6.6 billion.

Among his most pressing priorities is to pass $2 billion in income and property tax rebates, along with a proposal for another round of $2,000 pay raises for more than 200,000 teachers, education staffers and state employees.

ExploreKemp wants $2,000 pay raises for teachers, state employees

Beyond modest public safety and education initiatives, however, Kemp disclosed few other specifics about his second-term agenda. And he’s steered clear of endorsing the passage of legislation addressing new abortion limits, gun expansions or other social issues.

Nor did he stake out a defining “legacy” agenda along the lines of some of his predecessors, such as Nathan Deal, who embarked on an eight-year overhaul of the criminal justice system, or Zell Miller, who implemented the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship that transformed higher education in the state.

He framed the lack of big-ticket proposals as a sign of measured conservative leadership and a reminder that “government should care a lot more about safe streets, good schools, and good-paying jobs than what the pundits are saying on cable news.”

Credit: BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Instead, the 59-year-old governor emphasized the “tremendous headwinds” he surfed through his first term in office — pointing out that he had the tried-and-true scars to prove it.

“I also know that over the last four years my hair has gotten grayer, my face has more wrinkles and my family and I have taken our fair share of arrows,” he said, thanking his wife, Marty, and three daughters for standing by him.

“But I’ll say this: My heart has never been prouder to be a Georgian,” Kemp said. “And this old construction guy from Athens has never been more optimistic about our state’s future.”

A changed landscape

He took the oath of office before a crowd of hundreds at the downtown center, choosing a passage from the Book of Proverbs.

The verse was meant to portray a sense of unity after a time of division: “When the Lord is pleased with a man and his ways, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.”

It was a markedly different political environment than four years ago, when Kemp took his oath of office after an exceedingly bitter campaign that ended with some of his critics claiming his narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams would always mar his legacy.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

And just two years ago, he was regularly booed at GOP gatherings by Donald Trump loyalists who were infuriated he refused the former president’s demands to illegally overturn the results of his election defeat.

Kemp’s political standing has dramatically improved. Now one of his party’s top national figures, he throttled a Trump-backed challenger in the GOP primary and then soundly defeated Abrams in a rematch in November.

He’s the unquestioned head of state Republicans, with enormous political capital to burn, a proven ability to win over swing voters and a successful history of pushing priorities through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“I don’t see any major issues where we disagree,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch said. “Every time he speaks about the Legislature, he talks about our strong working relationship together. And we appreciate that.”

And in a sign of his growing clout, Kemp accepted an invitation next week to speak to an elite conference of billionaire executives and global political leaders at a Swiss resort.

Over the past four years, the state’s economic position has strengthened, too. Kemp’s administration landed mega-projects promising to generate tens of thousands of jobs, including a string of green-energy manufacturers.

The latest was disclosed just this week, as solar panel giant Qcells announced a $2.5 billion expansion that state and federal officials described as the largest solar power investment in U.S. history.

In all, he said, the electric-vehicle industry accounts for 35 projects across Georgia that are worth $23 billion in investment and generate 28,000 new jobs.

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC/TNS

Kemp said his second-term goal is to cement Georgia as the “electric mobility capital of America” by adding to the multibillion-dollar investments from automakers Hyundai and Rivian, and manufacturer SK Battery.

“To accomplish this goal, we’re keeping our foot on the gas — and I look forward to the announcements we’ll make in the near future,” he said, stopping short of rolling out specifics on how the state would lure more green firms.

‘My promise’

Even as Kemp’s hand has strengthened, Georgia has grown more competitive. The state voted for a Democratic presidential contender in 2020 for the first time in nearly three decades, and Georgians spurned GOP U.S. Senate candidates three times in a two-year span.

Kemp expanded his coalition, blending his support for conservative wish-list items, such as gun expansions and abortion restrictions, with economic and education policies geared toward middle-of-the-road voters.

“Kemp appears more confident and looser than when he started his first term, but he’s hitting his stride as Georgia turns into more and more of a swing state — and it’s showing in the way he speaks,” said Democratic state Sen. Josh McLaurin of Sandy Springs.

McLaurin noted how Kemp is positioning himself for possible federal aspirations — including a potential matchup against Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff — by trying to pull off a tricky balance.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

“He’s trying to keep his base energized while trying urgently to focus on kitchen table issues this go-around, instead of the culture war bills on abortion and guns that he has been serving up for them,” McLaurin said.

Democratic state Rep. Ruwa Romman applauded the governor’s plan to raise public salaries and promote green incentives. But her remarks also indicated her party’s discontent with other parts of Kemp’s scaled-back agenda.

“I urge him to consider the needs of our underserved and underinvested communities,” Romman said. “Issues like the crisis of affordable health care coverage and housing are not going away, and many of our small businesses still need help.”

Although Georgia has emerged as one of the nation’s most important political battlegrounds, Kemp’s victory serves as a reminder of GOP dominance in state offices. His inauguration marked the state’s sixth consecutive Republican administration dating to 2003.

To Kemp, the formula for victory hinged on a focus on “kitchen table issues” — namely, his stewardship of the economy — along with appealing to everyday Georgians and not playing to the “cocktail circuit“ crowd.

“We may disagree on policy or politics. We may not see eye to eye on an important issue facing our state,” he said. “There may be another pandemic. Another contentious election. Or another natural disaster.”

“But my promise to all of you today remains the same that it was then,” he added.

“If tomorrow morning God sends us another struggle, I will roll up my sleeves and get to work. And I have no doubt that the people of this state will endure whatever we face. Together.”