Why Brian Kemp wants Sonny Perdue to lead Georgia’s higher ed system

November 5, 2018 Atlanta - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp share a smile ahead of Putting Georgians First Fly Around a day before the election day at Peachtree DeKalb Airport on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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November 5, 2018 Atlanta - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp share a smile ahead of Putting Georgians First Fly Around a day before the election day at Peachtree DeKalb Airport on Monday, November 5, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

It seemed safe to assume that Sonny Perdue’s chance to be the next leader of Georgia’s higher education system would fizzle the moment his first cousin challenged Gov. Brian Kemp.

Instead, the opposite has happened.

Sonny Perdue’s chances of being the next University System of Georgia chancellor have dramatically improved since David Perdue entered the contest – thanks in part to the support of Kemp’s administration.

After months of gridlock, Kemp has restocked the 19-member Board of Regents with several allies who could back Sonny Perdue as chancellor. A formal interview said to be scheduled for later this month will jumpstart the process.

How this drama has unfolded has baffled some political insiders who figured the governor would immediately sink Sonny Perdue’s candidacy. While the Regents have the final say on who leads the system, the governor has immense influence over the process.

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Kemp and his inner circle have instead intensified their behind-the-scenes push for Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor in Georgia history who wielded his political influence to help Kemp win the state’s top jobs.

It also shows how the formidable Perdue political network – one that helped elect Sonny Perdue to two terms as governor in the 2000s and David Perdue to the U.S. Senate in 2014 – is not as cohesive as it once was.

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10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) give Gov. Brian Kemp a high five as he prepares to make remarks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) give Gov. Brian Kemp a high five as he prepares to make remarks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) give Gov. Brian Kemp a high five as he prepares to make remarks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Alec Poitevint, long a pivotal player in the Perdue network, is now backing Kemp over David Perdue. He’s also a fierce advocate for Sonny Perdue to land the chancellor job, saying his experience in state politics and as former President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary prepared him for the role.

“All major jobs need a personality that fits with the times. And I think Sonny’s personality fits with the time. If you’re the governor and you want to do what’s best for the state, why would you exclude anybody?” he said. “Brian is a great leader – and leaders lead.”

‘Way too long’

After the AJC first reported Sonny Perdue was under consideration to lead the 340,000-student system last year, internal turmoil ground the selection process to a standstill.

A regional accrediting agency threatened sanctions, a search firm abruptly quit and confusion reigned. Faculty and student backlash followed, as critics accused Kemp of politicizing the process to benefit a fellow Republican who had no direct experience in academic administration.

Left without a permanent replacement after the retirement of Steve Wrigley, the Regents tapped longtime state financial official Teresa MacCartney as interim chancellor, a move welcomed by leading lawmakers.

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Former President Trump endorses Perdue over Kemp in race for Governor

Former President Trump endorses Perdue over Kemp in race for Governor

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Former President Trump endorses Perdue over Kemp in race for Governor

The governor has remained publicly neutral on his role on the search for a chancellor, though Sonny Perdue has acknowledged the two discussed the idea. In an interview, Kemp criticized the slow pace of the process.

“I have advocated for the search just moving forward. You know, the board, quite honestly, has been all over the place,” he said. “They announced a search, then they thought about pulling it back. I can’t remember what all happened. But I think this process has gone on way too long.”

Behind the scenes, though, Kemp’s administration powered ahead with an overhaul of the board, replacing members appointed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal with political allies. Several Regents seen as critics of Perdue were removed.

‘Some stability’

Interviews with three administration officials, conducted anonymously to speak candidly about the personnel decisions, help frame Kemp’s decision to pave the way for Sonny Perdue.

Kemp and Sonny Perdue met shortly after the January 2021 runoffs – long before David Perdue even rumbled about a primary challenge to the governor – to discuss his interest in returning to state government. Their conversation eventually landed on the soon-to-be vacant chancellorship.

Helping to drive Kemp’s interest in pushing the idea was a frustration with the “status quo” at the university system and concerns that conservative voices and viewpoints were getting sidelined.

Sonny Perdue said as much in his only public comments on the chancellor job, when he told the AJC that he would push the system to embrace conservative values at a time when it was struggling to navigate a social justice movement and other challenges.

“There are challenging times here, not only with the pandemic but with the culture revolution that we’re seeing as well,” said Perdue. “And there needs to be some stability there to help guide the state’s values and policies through higher education.”

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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, in Lebanon, Tenn. Perdue and acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler met with farmers about a new Trump administration proposal to redefine "waters of the United States." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Credit: AP

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, in Lebanon, Tenn. Perdue and acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler met with farmers about a new Trump administration proposal to redefine "waters of the United States." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Credit: AP

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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, in Lebanon, Tenn. Perdue and acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler met with farmers about a new Trump administration proposal to redefine "waters of the United States." (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The governor also has personal reasons to feel beholden to Sonny Perdue. He supported Kemp’s state Senate bid in 2002, helping him win his first foray in public office, and later appointed him to fill the open post of secretary of state.

Six days before the 2018 GOP primary for governor against Casey Cagle, Sonny Perdue talked Trump into giving Kemp his endorsement. He followed up by campaigning for him around the state.

As David Perdue emerged as a threat, some of Kemp’s allies hoped appointing his cousin to the job would keep Trump at bay – and perhaps persuade his famous cousin to stay on the sidelines.

Even after that possibility evaporated -- David Perdue entered the race with Trump’s blessing in December -- Kemp’s aides have stressed their ongoing support for Sonny Perdue comes with no political strings attached – not even the promise of an endorsement.

“When Governor Kemp gives his word to somebody — unlike other people — he sticks to it,” said one senior administration official.

The strained Perdue family bonds add another wrinkle to an already bitter Republican battle. David Perdue acknowledged the awkwardness in one of his first campaign stops.

“He’s in a delicate situation,” the former U.S. senator said of his cousin. “His name has been mentioned as a chancellor candidate. And I hope they’ll look at that seriously and take that separately from what I’m doing.”