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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is crafting a plan to “dismantle” the Common Core education standards that have long infuriated conservatives and put school administrators on the defensive. The governor said Monday he’s meeting with schools Superintendent Richard Woods to discuss ways to do away with Common Core - the voluntary set of reading, writing and math standards – and “letting our teachers teach.”  It’s not clear what action Kemp will take, and he was vague on specifics. But his aides said he likely does not have the authority to act unilaterally, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did when he signed an executive order to end his state’s use of the standards.  Kemp will have the support of the state’s top education official. Woods said he is “incredibly encouraged” by the push to eliminate what remains of Common Core in Georgia, adding that earlier attempts to scale back the program didn’t go far enough.  “My administration has been able to halt the spread of Common Core to other subject areas, such as science and social studies,” Woods said, “but this decisive action at the governor’s level is what’s needed to fully eliminate Common Core in our state, an action that will be of great benefit to our students.”  ‘Autonomy’ The Common Core debate centers on standards aimed at ensuring Georgia students learn the same concepts as children in other states. That goal was largely met with applause, not derision, when it was adopted here in July 2010.  Supporters of the standards, including the state education system under Woods’ predecessor, John Barge, called them an important economic development tool and not a “hidden agenda” from overreaching federalists.  But a tea party-infused opposition erupted among ruling Republicans a few years later, fueled by those who see an attempted federal takeover fueled by President Barack Obama of sacred state education policy.  By 2013, it had mushroomed into one of the most controversial issues in Georgia Republican politics, with school boards across the state fighting over the standards and political candidates allying with grassroots groups to combat the program. At the state GOP’s 2013 meeting, activists voted unanimously to urge state leaders to withdraw from Common Core because it “obliterates Georgia’s constitutional autonomy.”   Then-Gov. Nathan Deal soon ordered a review of the standards that led to tweaks that didn’t appease many critics. Woods, the superintendent, said Georgia’s math and English standards still closely mirror Common Core after those “minor” changes. ‘Deeper dive’ In recent years, though, Common Core has been supplanted by illegal immigration, abortion restrictions and gun rights as the dominant debates in the Georgia GOP.  And it’s been overshadowed by other education-related priorities from conservatives, such as school vouchers and tax credits scholarships.  Still, it holds a significant appeal in the state GOP’s deeply-conservative base – the bloc of voters that helped Kemp clinch his November victory. The state party’s convention in Savannah last weekend offered a glimpse of the issue’s staying power. An unsuccessful candidate to lead the state party hinged her bid on scrapping the standards. Activists handed out literature criticizing the program. And Kemp reminded the crowd of his campaign promise to “immediately end Common Core.”  The more than 1,500 delegates showered him with applause when he said it was “time to dismantle Common Core, reduce high-stakes testing, trust our teachers and put students – not the status quo – first.” In a follow-up interview on Monday, the Republican said he was conferring with Woods about his administration’s options. But he said it would take longer to make the changes than, say, the $3,000 teacher pay hikes embedded in the state budget. “I would hate to go into too many details now, but it’s something we’re working on. I think people are frustrated out there. Those are things we couldn’t fix quickly, like we did during the session with the teacher pay raise,” he said. “We’re now starting to dig into the things that take a little deeper dive.”  
  • A controversial change in the distribution of donated livers among patients in the U.S. for transplants will be undone this week, officials for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its nonprofit contractor said Monday — much sooner than the four weeks they initially said such action would take. That means that livers that may have been diverted away from patients in Georgia to patients in other states will once again be allocated closer to home, for the time being. The policy has prompted a legal challenge, and any changes are subject to court orders demanding the government hold off or allowing it set the policy in motion. Hospitals and transplant patients in Georgia and the Midwest have sued over the reallocation policy, saying the government rushed it through the legal consideration process and that it is also flawed. The stated idea behind the new policy is to get the few livers available for transplant to the sickest patients, regardless of state boundaries. The hospitals that are suing say that’s not what’s going to happen because the data the government used is flawed. Instead, they say, a scoring system used to determine the health of candidates for transplants will err in making patients in other states, such as New York, appear to be sicker than similar patients in Georgia. The plaintiffs say patients in rural Georgia who have worse medical support will die on the waiting list. Livers will then be sucked out of other states such as Georgia, they say, and directed toward those patients mistakenly identified as sicker. It’s impossible to know the specific impact to individual patients over the past week, but one Piedmont Hospital patient who was waiting for a liver spent a week on full life support without receiving one during the brief changeover to the new policy. Sunday night, he died. The government is implementing a national scoring system that is meant to smooth out scores across the states. That change will continue, the officials said at the hearing. The officials for the government and the contractor, the United Network for Organ Sharing, made their comments during a federal court hearing in Atlanta where they were defending themselves against suggestions they’ve been dealing in bad faith and showing a lack of candor in an effort to rush out the change. “We regret sincerely any misunderstanding,” Michael Drezner, a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer representing Health and Human Services, told U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg. “There was never any intent to evade a court order,” echoed Sara Anderson Frey, a lawyer for UNOS. What got them in hot water was their response last week to an order from Totenberg. After she directed the government and UNOS last week to stop the rollout that they had just started, they told her they were in compliance with her order — because the rollout was complete and there was now nothing to stop. They added that reverting to the original system would take four weeks. She responded with an order to show up in Atlanta on Monday and explain why they shouldn’t be cited with contempt of court. After that, they said it would take not four weeks but one. “I think it was a violation of the order, but I’m not going to impose sanctions at this point,” Totenberg said, provided they act in good faith and maintain the “fix it” mentality. “I appreciate the energy and resources dedicated … I appreciate the remorse expressed.” Totenberg added a warning in her signed order summing up the hearing: “The Defendants’ detour this past week was costly, disruptive, and unfortunate — and should not be repeated.” Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.
  • If U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is going to win Georgia’s Democratic presidential primary, as he vowed Saturday at his first campaign appearance in the state this cycle, he’s going to need voters like Wade Jackson. Jackson, 40, actually voted for Sanders in 2016 when he won just better than a quarter of the vote against Hillary Clinton. The lopsided result was due largely to Clinton’s overwhelming support from African-American residents. This time around, Jackson, a black Georgia voter, said he’s undecided for now about which Democrat he’ll support. He’s still considering a few of the nearly two dozen Democrats who have entered the presidential race. “People are waiting to see if he is who he says he is,” Jackson said. Coming to Augusta was a good start, he said. “He’s got to come to our communities and ask for our support,” Jackson said. Without them, Sanders doesn’t likely have a chance of winning any of the Southern states, where black voters make up the largest bloc of the Democratic electorate. “He’s done his homework this time,” said Kenneth Sullivan, a 25-year-old African-American voter. The Augusta resident said he noticed black faces everywhere behind the scenes, although there still weren’t many in the crowd of nearly 1,600 people who attended Sanders’ speech at the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre on the shore of the Savannah River. Sanders was introduced by black activist/author Cornel West, who has been front and center in Sanders’ outreach to African-American voters. “This goes far beyond skin pigmentation. It’s not about sexual orientation,” West told the crowd. “It’s about truth.” In his speech, Sanders quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass and touted his new education plan named after Thurgood Marshall, America’s first black Supreme Court justice. But the centerpiece of his campaign pitch remains economic inequality. “You are living in the wealthiest country in the history of time and you have people working two or three jobs just to get by,” Sanders said. Some of the most expensive homes in Augusta loomed in the background. “For the first time, the younger generation will have a lower standard of living than their parents.” He said proposals he made four years ago that were considered radical at the time now have mainstream support. “I get accused of being radical and extreme. I am not,” he said. “The American people believe in Medicare for all. The American people believe if you work 40 hours a week you should not be living in poverty. The American people think the minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour.” In 2016, Sanders was criticized by some for focusing almost solely on economic matters at the exclusion of social issues tied to race and gender. But on Saturday, he denounced restrictive new abortion laws passed in Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere and “the broken and racist criminal justice system.” He also leveled sharp broadsides against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and President Donald Trump. “If you don’t have the guts to participate in fair, full and open elections get the hell out of politics,” he said, referencing Georgia’s governor. Then, appealing to a belief among some Democrats that the election was rigged in Kemp’s favor since he served as overseer of the state’s election system while he was campaigning against Democrat Stacey Abrams, Sanders drew his biggest applause of the afternoon when he said, “And I know that Gov. Abrams agrees with me.” Sanders also reached out to Trump voters, saying he understood why many found his message appealing. “You’re worried your job might go to China,” he said. “You’re worried your kid might not be able to afford college.” “Unfortunately, it turns out Donald Trump is a pathological liar and what he told the American people he had no intention of fulfilling,” he said. The choice in 2020, Sanders concluded, was between “an oligarchy, to an even more authoritarian government, with a president who holds the Constitution in disdain.” “I have a better alternative, to bring our people together with an agenda that works for all of us and not just our wealthy campaign contributors,” he said.
  • Savannah - The Georgia GOP avoided a direct rebuke of House Speaker David Ralston at the state party convention Saturday despite calls from many in the grassroots base to punish the Blue Ridge Republican. The convention lacked a quorum to approve resolutions when they came up for debate late Saturday, and the convention ended without taking action. But even if a vote took place, it appeared unlikely delegates would have reprimanded Ralston.  That’s because the resolution they would have voted on praised lawmakers for limiting the rights of lawyers who serve in the General Assembly to delay their clients’ court appearances, rather than stronger language that urged him to resign.  That infuriated some conservative activists who handed out bright-red placards as delegates entered the Savannah convention hall that read: “I’m a Georgia voter and I believe Speaker Ralston needs to step down.”  The party also did not consider a resolution criticizing embattled state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, who was charged last week with 38 counts of federal fraud charges. Prosecutors say Beck stole more than $2 million from his former employer and funneling some to his campaign; he pleaded not guilty.  The Ralston move comes as little surprise. Outgoing Georgia GOP chair John Watson is a strong ally of Ralston and many in the party’s establishment sought to block the resolution in a committee. An early procedural motion to force a vote on an anti-Ralston resolution failed by a narrow margin.  After the convention ended without a vote on the resolution, Ralston panned critics who have “wasted time and resources selling a misleading, manufactured narrative” targeting him.  The language in the resolution commended the Legislature for “giving judges the authority to deny legislative leave, based in part on a review of the potential harm to alleged victims, which helps ensure the pursuit of justice is not unduly delayed.” That law was tightened after a joint investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed numerous occasions where he had made claims of legislative business to put off cases.  Alleged victims of some of his law firm’s criminal clients said the speaker’s leave requests had unfairly denied them justice as some cases stretched out for years.  A rape and child molestation case in Towns County involving an evangelist and a 14-year-old girl has been pending for more than five years, with Ralston delaying it at least eight times citing legislative leave.  Last week, another Ralston client charged with enticing and having oral sex with a teenage boy, and sending sexually explicit messages to another teen, was cleared of criminal charges in Gilmer County after years of case delays. Ralston has said he has done nothing wrong, but named an advisory panel of current and former lawmakers, attorneys, judges and a victims’ advocate to examine whether the state law should be revised. The changes let lawyer-legislators continue to be automatically granted leave from court when the General Assembly is in session and for one week before and three weeks after. At most other times, prosecutors, opposing attorneys, judges and other “interested parties” could object to leave requests. Judges would then have to rule on whether to grant leave based on a variety of factors including the age of the case and whether the leave request subverts justice. The activists who wanted to reprimand Ralston said it was a matter of principle.  “Character is important. Honor is important,” said Ed Palmer, a Coweta County delegate. “Everybody needs their day in court, but to put off these court cases for years - well, that’s a big problem.” State Rep. Ken Pullin, R-Zebulon, is one of about 10 legislators who signed a House resolution calling for Ralston to resign his post.  “We need to be able to hear from activists about Ralston’s alleged abuse of power,” said Pullin. “These are the ground forces that helped Governor Kemp get elected. And we need to hear from them.”  
  • Savannah - Gov. Brian Kemp blamed an “out of control” Democratic party for a stalled Hurricane Michael relief bill Saturday and mocked efforts to boycott the state by “C-list celebrities” angry about Georgia’s new anti-abortion law. Speaking at the Georgia Republican convention, Kemp nodded to the growing fallout from Hollywood celebrities and some production firms who have called for boycotts of Georgia after he signed the “heartbeat” law that seeks to ban most abortions.  “I understand that some folks don’t like this new law. I’m fine with that,” he said. “We’re elected to do what’s right – and standing up for precious life is always the right thing to do.” Kemp added: “We are the party of freedom and opportunity. We value and protect innocent life — even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.” (Among those who signed the letter to boycott Georgia: Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Mia Farrow, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Zoe Kravitz, Christina Applegate, Ben Stiller, Bradley Whitford, Tracee Ellis Ross, Uzo Aduba and Don Cheadle.) » ‘Ozark’ star Jason Bateman says he won’t work in Georgia if ‘heartbeat bill’ survives court challenges He also hearkened back to his controversial TV spots featuring him pointing a shotgun toward his daughter’s suitor, and another showing him threatening to “round up illegals” in his pickup truck if Congress didn’t take action.  Kemp said his administration will ensure “our guns are not up for grabs here” and said he would press Congress to provide aid for farmers devastated by the October hurricane “even if I have to get in my pickup truck and drive to D.C. and get it myself – and yes, I just said that.”  Deep partisan mistrust has stalled the long-promised natural disaster relief bill, even with no stated opposition to delivering federal aid to storm victims. An increasingly bitter fight over funding for Puerto Rico could keep a bipartisan deal out of reach. Without mentioning her name, the Republican also alluded to his rival Stacey Abrams, who ended her campaign for governor 10 days after the election without conceding the race. » Writers Guild of America warns Georgia that ‘heartbeat’ bill may cause Hollywood to flee the state “We fought every liberal activist in the country – and we won,” said Kemp. “And I’ll say it again for the folks in the back of the room: we won. But make no mistake, we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to double down and do it again.” Abrams’ top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, took aim at Kemp’s remarks about the film industry, saying it shows he “literally does not care if the film industry leaves Georgia.” “The only way to stop these men is to permanently take away their power,” she said.  Kemp, meanwhile, also railed against an “agenda-driven media” that criticize his policies and the“talking heads and the Twitter trolls” who want to obstruct his initiatives.  “I still believe our best days are ahead in this great state,” he said. “Folks, this is a battleground state in 2020. And it’s time to hunker down and fight. The left is angry, they’re radical and they’re ridiculous.” » Alyssa Milano tells Hollywood to leave Georgia after ‘heartbeat’ abortion bill passed the Senate  
  • Savannah – More than 1,000 conservative activists gathered Saturday to plot the Georgia GOP’s strategy for next year’s presidential election and select a new leader who will help steer the party’s course. The main goal of the meeting will be to pick a successor to outgoing state party chairman John Watson, hear from party leaders and vote on a raft of resolutions that could include reprimands of House Speaker David Ralston. We’ll have live updates below: 7:10 p.m.: The Georgia GOP avoided a direct rebuke of House Speaker David Ralston at the state party convention Saturday despite calls from many in the party’s grassroots base to punish the Blue Ridge Republican. Read the full story here. 6:55 p.m.: Republican activists elected David Shafer as chairman of the Georgia GOP on Saturday, capping a political comeback for the former powerful state senator just months after he lost a bruising runoff for lieutenant governor. Read the full story here. 6:50 p.m.: We’ve got results: David Shafer wins the Georgia GOP chair race.  6:35 p.m.: Still counting. 5:45 p.m.: Here’s a copy of the resolution that Republicans will likely soon approve that avoids a direct rebuke of David Ralston. The key passage: NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Georgia Republican Party commends the Georgia General Assembly for giving judges the authority to deny legislative leave, based in part on a review of the potential harm to alleged victims, which helps ensure the pursuit of justice is not unduly delayed. 5:30 p.m.: Voting is (finally) underway. 4:20 p.m.: The four candidates for Georgia GOP chair are delivering their speeches. Bruce Azevedo, an Athens-area real estate agent, said he was so incensed by the 2018 results that he jumped in the race. And he noted that 52 House seats were uncontested by Republicans last year. “Democrats now believe Georgia is a purple state,” he said. “These are the facts: The state of our party is unacceptable and we’ve got to do better.” Mary Kay Bacallao, an educator and former candidate for state superintendent, focused her speech on preventing the state from using Common Core educational standards. She got an icy welcome. Scott Johnson, the former Cobb GOP chair, opened with a flashy video recounting the near-miss by Democrats in the last election, and vowed the party would retire its debt of roughly $130,000 by September. “Our party needs a chair who can beat the Democrats on the ground but can also raise the money to compete,” he said.  And former state Sen. David Shafer, pledged to bolster a “neglected grassroots infrastructure” and end a “ridiculous competition for resources.”  “I believe our Republican Party is in trouble. In the last election, we found ourselves on the defensive for the first time in a decade,” he said. “We need to go back on the offensive.” 3 p.m. We’re in the midst of a lengthy procedural debate over which resolutions can emerge for a vote. The battle is primarily between the faction that supports panning Ralston who want to ensure a reprimand is voted on. “It’s getting close to anarchy,” quips one activist. It hasn’t gotten unruly, but tempers are flaring. 2 p.m. Gov. Brian Kemp blamed an “out of control” Democratic party for a stalled Hurricane Michael relief bill Saturday and mocked efforts to boycott the state by “C-list celebrities” angry about Georgia’s new anti-abortion law. Speaking at the Georgia Republican convention, Kemp nodded to the growing fallout from Hollywood celebrities and some production firms who have called for boycotts of Georgia after he signed the “heartbeat” law that seeks to ban most abortions.  Read the full story here. 11:30 a.m.: U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk invoked the Alamo and the Battle of the Bulge – two of the most famed military conflicts in the last two centuries – to draw a line between the fight for freedom and next year’s election. Of the Alamo, a Mexican victory over troops from Texas in 1836, he said it showed that “sometimes you have to take a stand against insurmountable odds for freedom and liberty.”  And he brought up the Battle of the Bulge – and the U.S. refusal to surrender to a vicious German counterattack – to connect with the Republican tussle with Democrats in 2020.  “We’re taken ground they never thought they’d lose because of the leadership of this president. Going forward we need to think of one thing: It’s going to get tough and tougher ... but we have to keep our eye on our cause,” said Loudermilk. His closing lines:  “We’re in the battle of not our lives, but our children’s lives and our children’s children’s lives. If we stay strong, we’ll win and 2020 will begin to turn this nation back around like you haven’t seen before. Thank you, and gear up for battle.”  11 a.m.: U.S. Sen. David Perdue talked more about President Donald Trump than he did his own re-election campaign. He praised Trump’s economic agenda, his military strategy, his judicial appointments and his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And most of all, he highlighted the Republican’s fight against a “100-year slide toward the socialist agenda” from Democrats. “This president is talking about getting back to the principles of our Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers. But this president gets beat up every day,” said Perdue.  “I never thought I’d be standing here building a case about why capitalism is better than socialism. But here we are. I didn’t ask for this fight but, like you, I’m up for it.” Perdue reminded the crowd of his close ties to Trump, saying the president calls him late at night, early in the morning and recently invited him to the White House for a lunch date that stretched into a six-hour meeting. “He’s not taking a victory lap,” said Perdue. “I don’t know when the man sleeps.”  Left unmentioned was the stalled push by Perdue and other Republicans for Hurricane Michael relief, which has ground to a halt amid Washington infighting.  Instead, Perdue appealed to the crowd to be “fully invested” in next year’s political races. “We had a wakeup call last year. In 2018, the governor’s race and lieutenant governor’s race got a lot closer than it should have,” he said, adding: “The battle for the White House is right here in Georgia in 2020. If President Trump doesn’t win Georgia, he won’t win the presidency.” 10 a.m.: It’s hard to miss the activists calling for Ralston’s ouster: They’re handing out bright-red placards reading: “I’m a Georgia voter and I believe Speaker Ralston needs to step down.” Whether they have enough momentum to get an anti-Ralston resolution to a vote remains to be seen: We’re told the committee overseeing the process blocked the effort. We checked in with a few of the leaders of the push shorty before the convention’s Saturday start. Ed Palmer, a Coweta County delegate, said it was a matter of principle. “Character is important. Honor is important,” said Palmer. “Everybody needs their day in court, but to put off these court cases for years - well, that’s a big problem.” State Rep. Ken Pullin, R-Zebulon, is one of about 10 legislators who signed a House resolution calling for Ralston to resign his post. “We need to be able to hear from activists about Ralston’s alleged abuse of power,” said Pullin. “These are the ground forces that helped Gov. Kemp get elected. And we need to hear from them.” And Catherine Bernard, a Brookhaven activist, said there’s “tremendous grassroots support behind holding Ralston accountable.” “It’s gone way beyond the grassroots. The public cares about this issue as a matter of the core integrity of our justice system, and everyone in politics has had to take note,” she said. “ It weakens us electorally,” she added. “And it provides a huge issue for Democrats.”  8 a.m.: Expect the state party’s finances to be a major point of debate.  While the Georgia GOP’s balance sheet has stabilized since 2017, when the party faced a costly racial discrimination lawsuit, the latest financial disclosure shows it has roughly $140,000 in debts and about $100,000 in cash on hand.   
  • You’re running out of time to renew your Georgia car tags this month.  As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported recently, vehicle registration in Georgia will shut May 24 to 27 while the state Department of Revenue installs a new vehicle registration software system. Service in many counties will be down for longer as local tax commissioners prepare for the new software and work through any bugs before they reopen.  State and local officials are urging motorists whose car tags expire in May or June to renew to renew them by Monday to avoid delays.  You can read more about the delays and the new software system here. For information about when local tag offices will be closed, check with your county tax commissioner’s office.
  • Thirty miles on I-285 separate them, but Democrats Brenda Lopez Romero and Michael Owens are hoping they can be united 650 miles away — in Congress. A passion for politics brought Lopez Romero and Owens together. Now it will put their relationship to the test as they compete in Democratic primaries in two separate congressional districts on opposite sides of Atlanta. Lopez Romero, a state legislator, is one of roughly a dozen candidates who have announced or are seriously considering a bid for the open seat representing the 7th Congressional District that covers parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties. Across town, Owens, the former chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party and Lopez Romero’s boyfriend of several years, is seeking a primary rematch against U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, in the 13th District. The two may be the country’s only couple currently running for Congress simultaneously, though there’s no national organization that tracks such statistics. “We didn’t plan it that way,” Owens said with a laugh. “I just think we’re both very passionate and driven people who see an opportunity to go out and make a difference, and I think putting our skill sets to the best use.” Vetting it out Running for Congress is a stressful and time-consuming undertaking. Fundraising alone can take up the majority of a candidate’s days, not to mention canvassing events with volunteers and voter meet-and-greets that dominate most weekends. And then there’s the snarl of traffic that clogs the couple’s roughly 30-mile commute across I-285 between Owens’ Mableton address and Lopez Romero’s home base in Norcross. But the pair sees their relationship as a strength on the campaign trail. No one understands the demands of running for office quite like another candidate, and the two can give one another strategic and messaging advice. Lopez Romero, a Mexico-born attorney who was the first Latina elected to the state Legislature, has emerged as a go-to on immigration and voting rights, and Owens is a cybersecurity analyst with experience working on tech and national security issues. “I can kind of poke holes or take a contrarian approach just for the sake of it, and she can do the same with me and kind of ensure that our thoughts around these policies have been thoroughly vetted out,” Owens said. “Through both of our courses of experience we’ve been able to meld those in a way so that I just think it makes us stronger.” Lopez Romero sees their simultaneous runs for Congress as an opportunity for growth in their relationship. “When a significant other is not involved in the political world, it puts a strain on their relationship,” she said. “There’s a lot we can mutually share with each other” by running for office together. Similar politics, different districts The two met at a Democratic Party event in 2014. And although their decisions to run were made separately, the two announced their candidacies within days of each other and ultimately chose to run for similar reasons. Both plan to focus on workforce development and economic mobility, and they’re betting their unapologetically liberal platforms will appeal to suburban voters who for years have been represented by Republicans and centrist Democrats in the U.S. House. The majority-minority districts they’re running to represent, however, differ significantly in terms of politics and socioeconomics. The 7th stretches through most of Gwinnett and the southern half of Forsyth, and it is home to sizable Asian and Latino populations. It’s been represented by Republicans for the past 25 years and has a median household income of nearly $75,000 a year. The 13th spans from Powder Springs to southwest Atlanta to Stockbridge, and residents have struggled to recover from the recession. Nearly 13% of its residents live below the poverty line, and the median household income in the Democratic stronghold is roughly $55,000 a year. Beyond that, the duo faces divergent challenges. Owens is looking to topple a well-known incumbent who’s served in elected office for more than 40 years, while Lopez Romero is trying to distinguish herself in a diverse field that includes the Democrat who narrowly lost last year. The two are members of a tiny group in American politics: couples in which both members are candidates for federal office. There are 10 congresswomen who were married to fellow members of Congress, according to the U.S. House historian’s office, but most didn’t serve in Washington at the same time as their spouses. It’s even rarer to find couples — married or not — who were together while both were non-incumbent candidates. In fact, a search couldn’t find any examples. Both Owens and Lopez Romero are well aware that the road ahead will likely involve “a lot of calendaring and a lot of patience,” as Lopez Romero put it. “We understand that this will be a process and a time commitment,” she said. Owens framed it in slightly different terms. “Let’s just say we put a lot of miles on the car,” he said. Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.
  • After years of major road construction across metro Atlanta, state officials are preparing for their biggest project yet: the $4.6 billion expansion of the top end of the Perimeter. The Georgia Department of Transportation says building new toll lanes along I-285 could ease traffic on one of the busiest stretches of highway in the Southeast. It also would link the region’s growing network of toll lanes — allowing motorists to drive from Acworth to Buford at the height of rush hour while avoiding the worst traffic. “This is a project of regional impact,” Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Natalie Dale said. “A quarter of a million people use this roadway.” The expansion may be good news if you live in Acworth or Buford. But some residents along I-285 fear the project will encroach on their communities, displacing homes and increasing noise and local traffic. “This project isn’t really to benefit us,” said Scott Gillispie of Chamblee. “It’s to benefit people from outside the Perimeter.” Residents like Gillispie got a glimpse of GDOT’s plans at public meetings along the route this week. The agency gave an overview of the project, but details — including how many and which properties GDOT might acquire to make way for the new lanes — won’t come for months. GDOT plans to build two toll lanes in each direction along the Perimeter between Paces Ferry Road in Cobb County and Henderson Road in DeKalb County. It also will build new toll lanes along Ga. 400 from I-285 to the North Springs MARTA station. Such toll lanes have become a key part of Georgia’s effort to address metro Atlanta’s traffic mess. GDOT officials say building more free lanes doesn’t work because they quickly fill up with traffic. Instead, the state uses fluctuating tolls — the worse the traffic, the higher the toll — to keep traffic moving in the new “express” lanes. Those lanes also could become the backbone of a regional bus rapid transit network. The proposed lanes on the top end of the Perimeter would be the lynchpin of a 120-mile network of toll lanes. Two years ago GDOT completed the I-75 South Metro Express Lanes ($226 million) in Clayton and Henry counties. Last year it opened the Northwest Corridor Express Lanes ($834 million) on I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, as well as a 10-mile extension of the I-85 express lanes in Gwinnett County ($140 million). Still to come are toll lanes on the east and west sides of the Perimeter and on Ga. 400. Eventually, toll lanes could be added to I-20 outside the Perimeter east and west of Atlanta and on I-75 south of the city from the end of the existing lanes to the Perimeter. It’s a massive investment in highway infrastructure — made possible in part by a gas-tax hike the General Assembly approved in 2015. The toll lanes on the top end of the Perimeter will be paid for in part with that money. Construction of the top-end Perimeter lanes would begin in 2023 and end in 2028. In the meantime, GDOT must draft specific plans, conduct environmental studies and get public feedback to qualify for federal funding. If this week’s public meetings are an indication, the new lanes may divide communities in more ways than one. Doraville City Council member Stephe Koontz worries some affordable apartments may be displaced by the new lanes. But she supports the project. Doraville is one of several cities studying transit along the Perimeter — including possible bus rapid transit service in the new lanes. “I realize this is very early in the project. We don’t know everything, what it’s going to be like,” Koontz said. “But this is a necessary project.” Dunwoody City Council member Lynn Deutsch is no fan of the proposal. She worries about the impact on surrounding neighborhoods — GDOT expects to acquire or obtain easements for about 300 parcels to make way for the new lanes. And she thinks more transit — not roads — is a better long-term traffic solution. “Our communities are suffering because of people who have chosen to live far out and do these massive commutes,” Deutsch said. “When you make commuting easier, more people will want to live far out.” GDOT officials are listening to comments like that as they begin to move the project forward. In September they’ll issue an official notice that they intend to proceed with the project. Then they’ll start the environmental review process and draft preliminary plans — including details such as which properties they expect to acquire. They’ll roll those plans out next year and solicit more public comment. With that feedback, GDOT will draft final plans. Pleasing everyone will be difficult as the state seeks to expand highways in highly developed areas. GDOT’s Dale said the agency will do what it can. “We want (people) to come to these meetings,” she said. “We want to hear from them. In the end, as we design this project, our goal is to mitigate those concerns, where possible.”
  • Gov. Brian Kemp postponed an annual trip to Los Angeles to promote Georgia’s film industry on Tuesday as a growing number of movie executives and celebrities criticized his decision to sign the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill into law.  Abortion rights activists had threatened to protest the May 22 event, and Georgia film executives were worried that tepid turnout and no-shows from studio chiefs could do lasting damage to the state’s movie-making business.  Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said that the trip would now take place in the fall, and that the governor plans to soon tour Georgia film production firms and meet with employees to show support for the industry.  The delay is the latest sign of how quickly the fallout over House Bill 481, which outlaws most abortions as early as six weeks, has rocked Georgia’s film industry since the Republican signed it into law a week ago. The annual event in Hollywood is usually a cause for celebration, drawing the state’s top officials and big-name film executives to a ritzy hotel. In past years, Gov. Nathan Deal used the occasion to thank studio chiefs and actors for their business. The relationship between conservative state leaders and left-leaning Hollywood elite has persevered through other rifts, including threats from major studios to ditch Georgia over the “religious liberty” measure that Deal eventually vetoed. But Kemp’s support for the abortion restrictions has sparked slow-boiling outrage.  Several film production companies have vowed not to shoot anything in Georgia, and dozens of actors including Alec Baldwin, Don Cheadle and Sean Penn signed a protest letter saying they won’t work in Georgia because of the law. One of the first to call for a boycott, “The Wire” creator David Simon, said shortly after the law was signed he will “pull Georgia off the list until we can be assured the health options and civil liberties of our female colleagues are unimpaired.” Others have taken a different tack: Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams will shoot an HBO horror drama in Georgia but will donate fees to the ACLU and the Fair Fight Action group founded by Stacey Abrams, the Democrat defeated by Kemp in November.  The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Netflix and other leading studios, is taking a wait-and-see attitude. In a statement, the group pointed to similar legislation adopted by other states that was blocked in the courts. A timely delay? A legal challenge in Georgia, too, is inevitable. The ACLU and other opponents plan to file a lawsuit this summer, and conservative backers of the law hope it will wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court to test the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Georgia film boosters hope that when the “Film Day” event is held in Los Angeles later this year, the legal challenge helps cool the heated debate over the law. “Oddly, I believe the governor will be better received in Hollywood once the ‘heartbeat bill’ moves to another branch of government for judgment,” said Kris Bagwell, chairman of the Georgia Studio and Infrastructure Alliance. Lee Thomas, the deputy commissioner of the Georgia Film Office, said in a memo to local production executives that the event was delayed due to “numerous factors” and likely would be held in November. Georgia has become one of the leading locations for movie and TV productions thanks to a lucrative incentives signed into law in 2005 that allows film companies to earn tax credits for up to 30 percent of what they spend here. In fiscal year 2018, 455 productions were shot in Georgia with an estimated economic impact of $9.5 billion. The state celebrated “Film Day” in March, and state leaders routinely attend premieres of movies shot in Georgia. The industry has become so influential in state politics that even the fiercest fiscal conservatives see the tax credits as untouchable. That includes Kemp, who said during the campaign he would review every tax incentive except for the film breaks.  Still, the governor said in a recent interview he would not be deterred from supporting socially conservative legislation by threats from the movie industry. 'I can't govern because I'm worried about what someone in Hollywood thinks about me,' Kemp said.