PG A.M.: Antisemitism bill passes but still divides Democratic lawmakers

Your daily jolt of news and analysis from the AJC politics team
State Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, the only Jewish member of Georgia's legislature, votes for the antisemitism bill in the House chamber on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

State Rep. Esther Panitch, D-Sandy Springs, the only Jewish member of Georgia's legislature, votes for the antisemitism bill in the House chamber on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

After years of debate, state lawmakers passed legislation to define antisemitism in an effort to combat hate crimes against Jews. But don’t let the overwhelming bipartisan margin fool you. It was a tough vote for many Democrats.

State Sen. Sally Harrell is a prime example. The Democrat represents a suburban Atlanta district with a significant Jewish population. Yet she surprised many when she criticized the measure — and then abstained from voting.

State Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta, she criticized the antisemitism bill and then abstained from voting. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Her argument? She said if lawmakers were to define antisemitism, then other groups that experience hatred should also get added legal protections. In an interview, she specifically said Islamophobia should be addressed.

“I think if we had both at the same time, both groups would have felt heard, and it would have decreased the amount of hate,” she said of her decision to skip the vote on the measure, which passed the Senate 44-6.

Furious Jewish groups openly talked about a potential primary challenge to the third-term lawmaker, who was elected in 2018 amid a wave of Democratic gains in the suburbs.

Members of the Jewish community clap after the antisemitism bill is passed in the Georgia Senate on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (Natrice Miller/Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Over in the House, where lawmakers approved another draft of the legislation last year, lawmakers quickly voted 129-5 Thursday to adopt the Senate version.

One of the five “no” votes was state Rep. Becky Evans, who was drawn into the same Atlanta-based district as state Rep. Saira Draper, a “yes” on the issue. Expect the rift to factor into their primary battle this year.

Another surprising vote came from state Sen. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who long argued the legislation was “fatally flawed” because it contained a definition of antisemitism he said was too broad. On Thursday, he voted “yes” on the measure.

When asked for comment about his change of heart, Setzler politely declined. When asked about buzz that he won a concession for his stance, perhaps in the form of a new push for “religious liberty” legislation, he again demurred.

***

The Georgia Senate will consider legislation that would create a special committee to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

INVESTIGATING WILLIS. The Georgia Senate this morning is set to consider legislation that would create a special committee to investigate Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

The AJC’s Maya T. Prabhu reported earlier this week that the legislation cites allegations that Willis is in an “improper” relationship with Nathan Wade. She hired Wade as a special prosecutor to assist her in the investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump and others accused of attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. These accusations against the district attorney originated in divorce filings by Wade’s estranged wife.

One of Trump’s co-defendants, Michael Roman, first cited those documents in a request that the charges against him be dismissed and that Willis and her entire office be removed from the probe.

On Thursday, Trump joined that push, the AJC’s Tamar Hallerman writes. His attorneys accused Willis of having “racial animus” toward the former president and his co-defendants, which they said violated Georgia’s rules of professional conduct.

Willis has not addressed the accusations that she has an intimate relationship with Wade and has benefitted from the money her office paid him. But she has defended her decision to bring him on to the case.

Prabhu will be in the Senate chambers for today’s vote. Stay tuned to AJC.com for updates.

***

State Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, requested that that the state attorney general's office review an election oversight measure that is scheduled for a Senate vote today. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

LEGAL ADVICE. Attorney General Chris Carr has been asked to vet proposed legislation that would give the State Election Board power to investigate the Secretary of State.

Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, requested that Carr’s office review the measure that is scheduled for a Senate vote today. The Secretary of State’s office’s general counsel has challenged Senate Bill 358, asserting that it would violate the Georgia Constitution by allowing “unelected bureaucrats unchecked power over the state’s executive branch” and could lead to illegal election interference.

State Election Board members are appointed by the governor, leaders in the General Assembly and each of the two major political parties.

***

The Georgia State Capitol. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Casey Sykes

icon to expand image

Credit: Casey Sykes

UNDER THE GOLD DOME:

  • 9 a.m.: The House gavels in.
  • 9 a.m.: The Senate convenes.
  • 11 a.m.: Committee meetings begin.

***

Rep. Jan Jones speaks after being reelected as speaker pro tem on day one of the Georgia Legislative Session at the Georgia State Capitol on Monday, January 9, 2023.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

VOUCHER VOW. Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones makes the case for school vouchers in an opinion column published in today’s AJC.

Jones, R-Milton, is among those legislators who have led the push to allow parents to use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. A Senate voucher bill failed narrowly last year but is likely to be taken up again this session. Gov. Brian Kemp vouched for vouchers in his State of the State address earlier this month.

***

MEDICAID HESITATION. As Georgia Republican lawmakers warm to full Medicaid expansion, many are insisting any embrace will come with conditions.

The AJC’s Michelle Baruchman writes, adoption of government-funded health care for the uninsured depends on the legislative willingness to approve a waiver model similar to the one used in Arkansas. There the state used federal Medicaid expansion dollars to buy plans for people with lower incomes on the Health Insurance Marketplace. Also, lawmakers would insist on legislation that would ease the rules that govern the establishment of new medical facilities, called certificate of need.

Republican legislators held a hearing on Medicaid expansion last fall and talk on the topic has resonated throughout the halls of the Capitol since the 2024 session opened earlier this month.

***

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens attended the Buckhead Coalition's annual luncheon for business and civil leaders. (Jason Getz/Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

ATLANTA UNITED. The Buckhead Coalition held its annual luncheon for business and civil leaders Thursday and, for once, Buckhead City was not the hot topic of the day. The effort to split the wealthy section of the city away from Atlanta failed spectacularly last year after a combined effort by local Democrats and state GOP leaders.

“It’s so nice to be in the Buckhead community, right here in the city of Atlanta,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said, with emphasis on the “City of Atlanta.” He said state leaders, including House Speaker Jon Burns, were instrumental in keeping the city whole.

When Burns spoke, the Republican from Newington was equally complimentary of the mayor, praising Dickens for his efforts over the last year, including to bring down crime and push forward the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns praised Atlanta Mayor Andrew Dickens for his efforts over the last year, including to bring down crime and push forward the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

“You have our support,” Burns said, saying that, “ensuring law enforcement have the proper training and the tools to do their jobs, that should not be a partisan issue.”

After years of clashes between previous Atlanta mayors and state leaders, Burns’ simple assurance that “the Georgia House of Representatives will be a steady hand that continues to deliver sound policy,” for the city and state was welcome news in the room.

But the biggest success in the past year, based on applause, was Dickens’ “pothole posse” and the city’s recent repaving of West Paces Ferry Road, which cuts through the center of Buckhead, including, of course, in front of the governor’s mansion.

***

Election worker Sally Frizzell counts blank ballots before the polls open in New Hampshire on Jan. 23, 2024. The Republican State Leadership Committee has announced its top targets for 2024 and Georgia is on the list. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Credit: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

icon to expand image

Credit: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

STATE OF THE STATE RACES. The Republican State Leadership Committee has announced its top targets for 2024 and, no surprise, Georgia is on the list.

In a memo this week, the RSLC listed Georgia, along with Arizona, Florida. New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin as states with “major implications for the presidential election, which will only increase Democrat spending in the following states.”

A key focus for the group will be its absentee ballot/early vote program to turn out low-propensity voters. “With Joe Biden up for re-election in 2024, this year could significantly alter the balance of statehouse control nationwide,” the memo said.

The RSLC announcement follows a separate memo from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee declaring 2024 as “the Year of the States,” which also listed Georgia as a top focus for investment and organizing.

“Democrats are recognizing that alongside important federal races, we must also compete and win power in the states,” the DSCL chair wrote. “Republicans built an advantage in the last decade but now Democrats are fighting back and shifting the balance of power.”

***

Charlene McGowan (center), general counsel for the Georgia Secretary of State's office, was a guest on the "Politically Georgia" show. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

LISTEN UP. Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs and Charlene McGowan, general counsel for the Secretary of State’s office, joined the “Politically Georgia” radio show to talk about election security and efforts by lawmakers to increase state oversight of the Secretary of State.

Listen at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And listen to Friday’s show live at 10 a.m. on WABE 90.1 FM, at AJC.com and at WABE.org.

***

MANCHIN TOWN HALL. Georgians looking for an alternative to presidential race front-runners Joe Biden and Donald Trump can hear from one potential third-party candidate in a virtual town hall today.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the longtime centrist Democrat from West Virginia, joins Politically Georgia’s Greg Bluestein for the 3:30 p.m. event, which will be livestreamed on ajc.com.

Manchin is traveling the country as he considers a run for president in 2024. As a part of a swing through Southeastern states, he’ll sit down with Bluestein to talk about it all.

***

TODAY IN WASHINGTON:

  • President Joe Biden has no public events scheduled.
  • The U.S. Senate is done for the week.
  • The House is in recess.

***

Sugar and Spice Sax, pictured at a recent Christmas party, call Jill and Dan Sax their people. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy photo

DOG OF THE DAY. They say girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” So we assume that means that Sugar and Spice Sax are just made of everything nice.

The two mini Australian labradoodles call Jill and Dan Sax their people. But those aren’t their only people. A reliable source tells us that socialites Sugar and Spice also routinely tag along to other people’s parties, including the Christmas gala pictured, and that 91-year-old Jean Sax tops their list of favorite other people. Since she is also a regular AJC reader, we heartily agree. And we name Sugar and Spice our Dogs of the Day.

Send us your dogs of any political persuasion and location, and cats on a cat-by-cat basis, to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, or DM us at @MurphyAJC.

***

AS ALWAYS, Politically Georgia readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to greg.bluestein@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com, patricia.murphy@ajc.com, and adam.vanbrimmer@ajc.com.