OPINION: Another year out of power for Georgia Democrats this session

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams makes a concession speech to supporters during an election-night party on Nov. 8, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams lost in her bid for governor to incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 race. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams makes a concession speech to supporters during an election-night party on Nov. 8, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia. Abrams lost in her bid for governor to incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 race. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

On the same day that the Georgia General Assembly gaveled into session this year, two-time Democratic governor nominee Stacey Abrams was on a TV stage appearing on actress Drew Barrymore’s daytime talk show.

She had just lost her second run against Gov. Brian Kemp, this time by eight points, but Abrams told Barrymore she will “likely run again.”

“If at first you don’t succeed,” she said. “Try, try again. If it doesn’t work, you try again.”

While Abrams gave that interview, Republicans were starting the year in control of both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide office.

Of course, Abrams is not responsible for Republicans’ choices at the Capitol this year. But for every day of the session without a Democratic governor or majorities in either the state House or the state Senate, members of her party in the Capitol have had little choice but to react to an agenda set by Republicans, often for Republicans.

No impassioned speeches seemed to move the needle. Press conferences often fell on deaf ears. Without the votes to pass their biggest priorities or a governor with a veto pen, Democrats have spent most of 2023, for lack of a better description, getting rolled.

The first part of this year’s session legislative session was spent adjusting to an entirely new roster of House and Senate leaders — all Republican — since the GOP again won the majority of seats in both chambers in November. Democrats managed to pick up three seats in the House and one in the Senate in 2022, but without a stronger showing at the top of the ticket, it wasn’t enough to take control of either.

Jon Burns took over as House Speaker, while Burt Jones assumed control of the state Senate as the newly elected lieutenant governor.

Since then, the chambers have been focused on passing their own or Gov. Brian Kemp’s priorities. Many of those measures were broadly popular and exactly what Kemp campaigned on in the general election — tax cuts, property tax rebates, and pay increases for teachers, police officers, and other state employees.

Other Kemp-backed measures were GOP-base pleasers that Democrats could little to stop. That included Senate Bill 92, a bill creating a state commission with the power to remove locally elected District Attorneys, which passed late Monday.

A school voucher bill, backed by Kemp and still pending, would pay for Georgia students to attend private school or home school.

Kemp also moved behind the scenes to push Senate Bill 140, the measure banning surgery and hormone replacement therapy for transgender minors, before it passed both chambers and Kemp quickly signed.

The passage of SB 140 was the low point of the session for many Democrats, they told me. Some wept on the House and Senate floor as they practically begged their Republican colleagues not to vote for it.

“To all of the children who will be negatively impacted by this bill, please don’t lose hope, please don’t give up, please don’t kill yourself,” state Rep. Karla Drenner said to transgender children watching members debate the bill. It passed both chambers anyway.

Not all of the most conservative measures have passed, even in the Republican-controlled chambers.

The effort to put a statue of Justice Clarence Thomas on state House grounds appeared to fizzle quickly after it passed the state Senate. And a new version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act hasn’t gone anywhere — although there’s still one day left and many plenty of bills left for dead have returned in the final hours of past sessions.

But if those bills do indeed die, it will be because of decisions made by Republicans. Until Democrats start winning more elections in Georgia —and lots of them —those aren’t their calls to make.

None of the priorities Democrats campaigned on in 2022, including gun safety, abortion rights, and fully expanding Medicaid, even got a vote.

It wasn’t always a lesson in futility for Democrats in the Capitol this year. State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, continued to partner with state Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Fulton, on a bill to expand mental health services around the state, although that bill is still pending in the Senate.

The death of the Buckhead City effort came after Democratic state Sen. Jason Esteves, a former chair of the Atlanta Board of Education, told his colleagues from both parties that the plan would endanger schools across the metro area.

State Rep. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, got a rare subcommittee hearing on her bill to require that guns be locked away from children, although a committee vote never followed.

As of Day 40, Democrats also seem poised to tank sports betting this year by combining their opposition with GOP religious conservatives who want to defeat the effort, too.

But the frustration over life in the minority seemed to be wearing on Democrats by Day 39, as the House debated a measure to require local leaders to allow gas-powered leaf blowers for people who want them.

“I want to point out that today in another state, babies were killed by bullets,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, referring to the elementary school shooting in Nashville Monday. “We have not debated a single bill when it comes to babies being killed by bullets, but today we are talking about leaf blowers. I think that’s an important context.”

One of the most important lessons for Democrats over the last year, other than it still hurts to lose, is that they have plenty of talent waiting in the wings, including many who found their own smaller victories at the General Assembly this year and others who were on the ballot with Abrams in 2022.

As much as Abrams helped to make the state competitive ahead of 2020 and raise loads of money in 2022, her loss last year came at a cost to Democrats that they’re paying for every day that they’re out of power. A third Abrams run would likely lead to more of the same.