When outgoing Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan vacated his office after his term ended, he left his successor, Burt Jones, little more in his second-floor Capitol suite than state-owned furniture — and a copy of his book inscribed with some parting advice.
“I hope you enjoy the job as much as I did,” Duncan wrote. “Policy over politics!”
There’s no love lost between Jones and Duncan, whose clashing visions of the GOP’s direction and Donald Trump’s role in the party deepened fault lines between the two men.
After the 2020 election, Duncan stripped Jones of his leadership posts in the state Senate after he promoted Trump’s election fraud lies. Last year, Duncan pointedly refused to endorse the fellow Republican — not that Jones ever sought the incumbent’s blessing.
That was a different political era. With his November victory, Jones is now one of the most powerful politicians in the state — and Duncan is a newly minted CNN analyst.
How Jones leads the Senate chamber will shape the state’s future. So far, the new lieutenant governor is sticking to consensus-driven themes that Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker Jon Burns have also embraced.
In an interview in his still-unadorned office, Jones vowed to bolster public safety, improve the foster care system and take steps to prepare Georgians for a new wave of high-skilled jobs.
“We’ve got to improve our workforce development and help drive more economic opportunities and growth to the state,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success in the last 10 years, and we need to continue that success.”
Jones also sharpened his position on key policies. He endorsed stiffer penalties for gang offenders and repeat violators, and he said he’d push legislation to create new state oversight for district attorneys.
“It’s a lot like the JQC is right now with judges,” he said, referring to the Judicial Qualifications Commission that monitors the judiciary. “When we have folks who aren’t fulfilling their jobs, we need to have a mechanism to deal with it.”
His newly created Children and Families Committee will be tasked with improving the foster care system — and, Jones said, ending the practice of housing Georgia’s foster children in hotels.
He also renewed his support for legalizing sports betting, an issue he’s long promoted. And he sounded a skeptical note on replacing runoffs with ranked-choice voting, in which voters pick their second-choice candidates upfront in the general election.
Jones notably didn’t include contentious social issues in his agenda, such as more abortion restrictions. He pointed to the ongoing legal battle over the 2019 anti-abortion law, saying he’s in a “wait-and-see mode” as it moves through the court system.
And though he was a vocal supporter of the Buckhead cityhood movement, he said he won’t lead the charge to split Atlanta into two municipalities. But he also didn’t disavow the idea.
“I’m not going to shut down the conversation if a senator brings it forward because they have legitimate issues,” he said. “We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t allow the process to try to play out.”
No ‘heavy hand’
The lieutenant governor’s ability to navigate the labyrinthine politics of the state Senate is just as important as his views on key issues. He intends to mirror the approach he takes as an executive in his family business, an empire that includes petroleum, insurance and auto sales.
“I want to put senators in positions where they’ll be successful and give them free rein,” he said. “I like to be involved with things, but I also like to have an arm’s-length approach because I don’t want to run things with a heavy hand.”
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC
He’ll lean on John Kennedy, the Senate’s new president pro tem, who said the two share a “historical perspective on what has worked well and what hasn’t” to shape their strategies.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch praised Jones for keeping his “promise of an open-door policy” as he hashed out committee assignments earlier this month.
Senior Democrats are keeping an open mind. State Sen. Elena Parent, one of the top Democrats in the chamber, said her party’s leaders have had conversations with Jones about working together.
“We are hoping that comes to fruition,” she said. “Our door is always open.”
Here’s how Jones lines up on key issues, slightly edited for clarity:
On his support for new crime crackdowns:
“Law and order is going to be a big focus. We’re going to look at gang violence and repeat violent offenders. And we’re going to look at district attorneys and prosecutors who aren’t prosecuting the criminal element out there.
“We’ll look at prosecutors who are not doing the job they have sworn to do, who are just allowing violent criminals back on the street without any recourse. It’s a lot like the JQC is right now with judges. When we have folks who aren’t fulfilling their jobs, we need to have a mechanism to deal with it.”
On Buckhead cityhood:
“I’m very sympathetic to what’s going on in all areas of Atlanta, but particularly in Buckhead. I’m very clear on this: I’m not for creating other layers of government. But I’ve been down here 10 years and we’ve voted on referendums to create new cities in multiple other places.
I’m not going to shut down the conversation if a senator brings it forward because they have legitimate issues. We’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t allow the process to try to play out. I’m not shutting the door on a senator bringing forth legislation to be debated. That’s what the legislative process is all about.”
On his relationship with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and his response to the violent protests this week:
“I’ve met with the mayor and I found him to be an engaging and likable person. Whether we’re talking about this past weekend or beyond, we’re going to agree on a lot of things and we’re going to disagree on others. The best thing you can do is find what you can agree on. What he did this weekend was very appropriate because that criminal element needed to be shut down.”
On abortion and guns:
“In 2019, we passed the heartbeat bill. It had exceptions in that bill and I stand by that. We’re going to have a wait-and-see mode on that front as it moves through the court system. We passed constitutional carry. The issues I’ve talked about — law and order, trying to improve the business and education climate — are what I want to be focused on. Instead of things that have already been addressed.”
On sports betting:
“I carried that bill three years ago. I’ve always been fine with it. Sports betting is going on right now, but we’re just missing out on the dollars by not regulating it. I’m for it. I haven’t seen a bill for it yet. I’m certain it’s coming. The big debate is where you want to put the dollars, and I want to put it toward education and the HOPE scholarship.”
On eliminating runoffs:
“I never have been a fan of ranked-choice voting. But I am willing to sit down and have a conversation about our runoff system. I’d love to see some of the options on the table.”
On his leadership style:
“I come from an actual business background. We’ve had to put people in the right place in leadership positions. And when you put them in the right leadership positions, you have to trust what they do and give them free rein to take care of their areas. That’s going to be my style in the Senate. I want to put senators in positions where they’ll be successful and give them free rein. I like to be involved with things, but I also like to have an arm’s-length approach because I don’t want to run things with a heavy hand.”
On his approach to his job:
“You’ve got to surround yourself with good people in whatever you do, and I feel like we’ve done that here. You’re only as good as the folks you surround yourself with. I am always working, either here at the Capitol or my businesses. But I don’t really consider it work. I enjoy people and solving problems and being engaged. It’s my second nature.”
On his economic outlook:
We’ve got to be backfilling your labor force, because not only do you have new industries coming in, but you have folks already here. … Our approach here in the state of Georgia has been that we’ve been an industry for a lot of different things. I love the fact that we have thousands of new jobs coming to every region in the state right now.”
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