What a Pepsi can says about the GOP’s rift with corporate Atlanta

03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (Blue Ridge) speaks with members of the press following Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (Blue Ridge) speaks with members of the press following Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The election law sparks a new divide between Republicans and Georgia business giants

Moments after gaveling the legislative session to an end early Thursday, House Speaker David Ralston stood before a bank of TV cameras and admitted something that many lifelong Georgians would never say publicly: He purposely cracked open a Pepsi.

Never mind that the Blue Ridge Republican was clutching an ice-cold Dasani, a product of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, as he spoke. Ralston’s acknowledgement he had imbibed Coke’s hated arch-rival earlier in the week capped a barrage of broadsides between state Republicans and Georgia corporate giants that shaped the final day of the legislative session.

It started early Wednesday when Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian issued a scathing indictment of Georgia’s new elections law, a sweeping overhaul that includes new voting restrictions. Coca-Cola’s top boss followed up with a CNBC interview that also pronounced the law “unacceptable.”

“It is a step backwards,” said Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey. “And it does not promote principles we have stood for in Georgia around broad access to voting.”

State Republican leaders felt blindsided. For weeks, the two companies and other Georgia-based corporate titans had only tiptoed into the debate over voting rights, issuing inoffensive statements about the need for fairness and integrity. After Gov. Brian Kemp signed the measure, both firms even put out new statements that seemed to defend the law.

Now Kemp, Ralston and other Republicans wondered aloud where the outrage from these companies was weeks ago – and why they chose the grand finale of the 40-day legislative session to lash out. So did many Democrats who pronounced the sudden corporate blowback to the law too little, too late.

03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — House Representatives throw paper in the air in the House Chambers following Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — House Representatives throw paper in the air in the House Chambers following Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The two corporate giants, meanwhile, were dealing with mounting pressure on their end. Voting rights advocates and religious leaders demanded they take more strident steps. President Joe Biden condemned the law, as did dozens of top Black business executives.

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Still, many under the Gold Dome were stunned Coke and Delta didn’t wait another day. Their statements coincided with the final hours of the legislative session, when a number of tax measures were still pending. Any one of them could have been amended to punish either of the companies.

This was particularly prickly for Delta, which is both the state’s largest private employer and a frequent sparring partner for Republicans in the Statehouse.

In 2015, Delta lost a lucrative jet-fuel tax break after its then-CEO urged lawmakers not to be “chicken” about raising taxes for infrastructure improvements. And in 2018, it famously was stripped of the incentive again when the airline ended a discount for the NRA in response to a mass shooting.

Delta fought hard later that year to get the tax break restored, but Bastian’s comments put it in the crosshairs again. As midnight neared, House lawmakers voted along party lines to pass an amendment to scrap the incentive, worth more than $35 million a year.

“It is purely retaliation for the business community speaking out on a bill everyone feels is Jim Crow 2.0,” Democratic state Rep. David Wilkerson said from the floor of the House.

Ralston made no effort to hide that it was payback.

03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Tamara Stevens, of No Safe Seats, holds protest signs on the South wing staircase during Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/31/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Tamara Stevens, of No Safe Seats, holds protest signs on the South wing staircase during Sine Die, legislative day 40, at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

“They like our public policy when we’re doing things that benefit them,” said Ralston, adding: “You don’t feed a dog that bites your hand. You got to keep that in mind sometimes.”

Over in the Senate, the late push to ding Delta stalled out. Some Senate leaders weren’t comfortable with other parts of the tax measure, while others didn’t want to punish a company starting to rebound from the pandemic. It never reached a final vote – frustrating some rank-and-file Republicans.

“I wanted to vote for it,” said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte. “I wanted to send Delta a message – we should have at least had a discussion about it.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if either company doesn’t have a seat at the table when it comes to major policy decisions going forward, senior Republicans say. One spoke of a “seismic” shift in the Capitol away from the twin behemoths.

As for Ralston, it seemed a little more personal. He sees himself as champion of measures that have burnished the state’s pro-business reputation, like same-sex adoption legislation and hate-crimes laws, and a bulwark protecting against “religious liberty” comeback.

In the afterglow of the session, Ralston served notice that the companies could face significant fallout when the General Assembly reconvenes. He flashed a bit of anger when he said he planned to call Bastian to “find out if he’s going to suspend flights into states that have more restrictive voting rights than we do.”

And he confessed that he surprisingly enjoyed the Pepsi the other day at a closed-door caucus meeting — it’s “not that bad actually“ — though he couldn’t down the whole thing.

“I drank it ‘til it got warm.”

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