Kemp goes to Davos: Georgia’s governor makes a pitch to global elite

Gov. Brian Kemp took his seat between Delaware U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker at one of the planet’s most exclusive gatherings in Switzerland on Tuesday and made a pitch for Georgia to some of the world’s wealthiest movers-and-shakers.

Amid gridlock in Washington, the governor told the World Economic Forum that Georgia’s economy is “rocking and rolling.” Politicians, he counseled the crowd, should be straightforward with their audiences.

And he had some “take it for what it’s worth” advice to congressional legislators readying for another round of debates about a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“While we’re waiting on that, just secure the border,” he said, invoking concerns about illegal drugs and violent crime. “I think there would be broad bipartisan support in the meantime, while you are working on these things, to secure the dang border.”

The governor stunned even many of his supporters last week when he agreed to take part in the elite forum in the Swiss town of Davos, a gathering of hundreds of billionaire financiers, corporate chieftains and heads of state that’s a hated symbol of excess to many conservatives.

Kemp, who railed against elitist out-of-state interests in his past two elections, made clear he didn’t see himself as a part of the group. He described himself as a “Georgia redneck going to Davos” before the trip, and he stood out as the only participant on the stage wearing cowboy boots.

But he also framed the event as an economic development mission — a one-of-a-kind chance to appeal to CEOs and international leaders in a single setting. His office set up meetings with European, Japanese and South Korean decision-makers, and he took part in a private, glitzy lunch Monday with dozens of executives at a mountaintop hotel.

“For anyone wondering why I’m here,” he told legislators by video earlier Tuesday, “I’ll be happy to tell everyone how others can benefit from hearing about our conservative principles and our approach both to budgeting and to job creation.”

‘We saw you a lot’

Kemp’s invitation to the exclusive event speaks to his rising national political profile after defeating both Democratic star Stacey Abrams and Donald Trump’s hand-picked candidate in his 2022 reelection.

The panel’s moderator and leader of the forum, Norwegian diplomat Borge Brende, noted as much when he called Kemp a familiar face to many of the global glitterati in the room.

“We saw you a lot on TV all over the world over the last election,” he said when introducing the governor.

Later, Brende pressed Kemp about why his party didn’t do better in the midterm elections. The governor kept his remarks focused on how he appealed to Georgia voters in his victory against Abrams.

“They want to know the differences between the candidates, but they also want to know what we are for,” he said. “What are they going to get the next four years? That’s something we just stayed focused on.”

Echoing his campaign trail message, the Republican mocked people “who were sitting in the basement on their computer” criticizing his decision to lift economic restrictions in 2020 during the opening weeks of the global pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to review troops following his inauguration Thursday at the Georgia State University Convocation Center. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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“Look at the candidates and ask: Who’s been fighting for you? Who is fighting to keep your businesses open?” he said of his message to voters, adding: “Who is pushing to get our kids back in the classroom? Well, we did all those things.”

He was joined on the panel by other prominent politicians, including Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and newly independent U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

As they detailed legislative squabbles in Congress, Kemp seemed to delight in drawing a contrast with the climate in Georgia, where the Republican-controlled Legislature is hashing out how to spend a record-setting $32.5 billion budget.

“If there’s gridlock in Washington, D.C., one thing you can count on is the stability and a great economy and a great business environment in the state of Georgia,” Kemp said. “We’re going to keep rocking and rolling.”