I dropped by Gov. Nathan Deal’s office recently for a visit. In little over a month-and-a-half, our 82nd governor will be our newest former governor. My timing could not have been better. The governor seemed happy to see me. (Not the kind of reaction I usually get from many of our public officials.) What was supposed to be a 30-minute appointment stretched to almost an hour. Good for me. Bad for those in charge of scheduling his time.
I asked the governor his reaction to the just completed governor’s race. “I am glad it is over,” he laughed. Aren’t we all. On a serious note, he said it was obvious that our current election laws will be a major debate going forward. The governor cautioned that whatever changes are considered will likely be expensive and can’t be accomplished overnight or perhaps even within the next two years. But it is an issue that is not going away. Be prepared.
In my not-so-humble opinion, Deal has been a good governor. There were a few bumps in the road along the way — an ethics investigation while still a member of Congress, questions regarding payments to his daughter-in-law’s fundraising company during his re-election campaign and the famous — or infamous — Snowmageddon debacle of 2014.
Today as he prepares to leave office, Deal’s approval ratings are extremely high. A recent survey by the Atlanta newspapers showed that more than 85 Republicans in the state approve of his performance as well as 48 percent of Democrats. Want further proof of his popularity? In one of the most acrimonious partisan elections in memory, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former House minority leader Stacey Abrams ran television ads touting her good working relationship with the governor.
And why not? He leaves office with the state in excellent financial health. The state’s Quality Basic Education formula for K-12 was fully funded for the first time ever and he has instituted a major overhaul of our criminal justice system, making it one of the best if not the best in the nation. (Note: I am a member of the State Board of Juvenile Justice.) He has also appointed more judges in his time in office than any governor in history.
He proudly points out the expansion of the HOPE Grant, a scholarship that pays 100 percent of tuition for students to attend technical colleges to learn skills that are in high demand for Georgia’s workforce as well as establishing the REACH Georgia Scholarship, a public-private partnership that provides scholarships to promising middle school students from low-income families.
He has dealt with the tough decisions a governor has to make without engaging in the shrill name-calling and denigration that seem to be a part of the current political environment. He vetoed the Religious Liberty bill passed by the General Assembly. He restored the tax cut to Delta Air Lines by executive order after legislators dropped it in retaliation for Delta halting a discount program with the National Rifle Association. (The Legislature restored the tax break during their recent special session.) In both cases, the response to his decisive actions was remarkably mute. It is obvious that the governor walks softly but has a big stick and knows how to use it.
How has he managed to get things done without threats and tub-thumping? “My wife (first lady Sandra Deal) is always reminding me to be nice,” he laughs. Then adds, “I think you should always try to educate before you advocate.” The governor says he tries to let the public and lawmakers know what he is proposing and why, and then getting their input.
One of the examples he uses is the comprehensive transportation bill passed in 2015 to maintain and repair Georgia roads and bridges that required an increased gasoline tax and an extra fee on hotel stays.
On the other hand, an attempt at an Opportunity School District, which would have established an office for a second state superintendent who would have reported to the governor, was soundly defeated by voters in a referendum. “We got out ahead of ourselves on that one,” he admits. Since then, the General Assembly has passed a similar concept creating a “turnaround officer” to work with underperforming schools but under the control of the local school districts.
With a change in administrations upon us, the state looks like the proverbial duck — gliding smoothly on the surface but paddling like the dickens under water. It is called the transition period. Gov.-elect Brian Kemp has a team on hand working with those in Gov. Deal’s administration and getting ready for the handoff. “I am not there to intrude but will help if the governor-elect asks,” Deal said. “Gov. (Sonny) Perdue was extremely helpful to me in our transition and I hope I can do the same for Gov.-elect Kemp.” I would suggest Kemp listen closely to the man. He has big shoes to fill.
With that, we switched gears and talked about how Deal got from his boyhood home in Sandersville to the highest office in the state. More on that next week.