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State & Regional Govt & Politics

    A federal judge will hear the arguments Monday for the first time from opponents of Georgia’s new anti-abortion law as they ask him to stop the measure from going into effect. Gov. Brian Kemp in May signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, outlawing the procedure in most cases once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity. It is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has asked U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones to stop the law from going into effect while the case makes its way through the court system. The ACLU argued in a June complaint that the law violates a woman’s constitutional right of access to abortion until about 24 weeks of pregnancy, as established in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. The ACLU has argued that “politicians should not be second-guessing women’s health care decisions.” In its response, the state said Georgia’s new anti-abortion law is “constitutional and justified” and asked Jones to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the measure. “Defendants deny all allegations in the complaint that killing a living unborn child constitutes ‘medical care’ or ‘health care,’” attorneys wrote. The state hired Virginia-based attorney to represent Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, members of the Georgia Composite Medical Board and its executive director. ACLU is representing SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Feminist Women’s Health Center, Planned Parenthood Southeast and other abortion rights advocates and providers.
  • When Tracy Maddux began his campaign to be Chattooga County’s magistrate judge 22 years ago, just about everyone he knew and trusted told him he’d better run as a Democrat. He’s secured five more terms since then, winning comfortably as a Democrat even as the county became more reliably Republican. And he remained a Democrat until last week, when he and three other elected officials bolted the local party, leaving it in disarray. No, it wasn’t the liberal positions by White House hopefuls that triggered Maddux’s decision, though they didn’t help. He switched parties in the aftermath of a recent white supremacist rally in Dahlonega, when the local sheriff was targeted for criticism over a poorly worded social media post. “The party has changed so much now, it’s really hard to tell where the lines are some days,” the judge said in an interview in his office. “But that Facebook controversy put me over the top. Sometimes you just have to make a stand — and you’ve got to own your decision.” The four defections shook up politics in a rural northwest Georgia county where Democrats held surprising sway in local matters, even as Republicans dominate in state and federal elections. In a front-page article, The Summerville News said the exodus “shattered” the Democrats’ century-long grip on county affairs. Jason Winters, the sole county commissioner in Chattooga, doesn’t disagree with that assessment. He won two terms as a Democrat before he was ousted from the local party in 2014. His crime: He was photographed putting up signs for Republican state Sen. Jeff Mullis and then-Gov. Nathan Deal. “I happily became a Republican, and I’ll run again in 2020 as a Republican,” he said, laughing now about the controversy, before conversation shifted to more recent developments. “It’s an extremely small county. Our relationships are strong. We all know each other,” he said. “But things here have definitely changed.” ‘A mess’ It started with a post from Chattooga County Sheriff Mark Schrader shortly after his department helped police a rally in downtown Dahlonega organized by white supremacist activists. A few dozen showed up in support of the rally, along with three times as many counterprotesters and about 600 law enforcement officers. Schrader posted a Facebook picture of himself and three other armed-to-the-teeth deputies with this caption: “Doing our part to help our friends in Lumpkin County (Dahlonega) with the antifa protests,” read the post, which made no mention of the white supremacists. He soon took down the post and apologized, but not before it attracted national attention and hundreds of comments — including some who criticized his officers and their families. Schrader said in an interview that many of the most threatening posts came from Democrats who assumed he was Republican. “The weekend ushered along a decision I’d been pondering for a long time,” said Schrader, who left the Democratic Party days later. “There’s a lot of hate spewed out there. Words don’t typically bother me, but when you start threatening my employees and their families — I can’t handle that.” He was the fourth in a string of officials to leave the party, along with Maddux, Clerk of Courts Kim James and Tax Commissioner Joy Hampton. Some Democrats with deep roots in the community accused the four of seeking an excuse to leave the fold. J.L. Biddle, a Chattooga native and chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, said he didn’t regret his searing public criticism of Schrader’s remarks. “Words matter. Inferences matter. Denouncing hate, whether directly stated or inferred, should be a nonpartisan issue,” Biddle said. “The public officials leaving the Democratic Party simply seized an opportunity,” Biddle said. “True Democrats who believe in our all-inclusive platform do not simply leave our party due to the sharing of a social media post. True Democrats call out and fight against hate.” The Chattooga County Democratic Party, meanwhile, tried to stem the revolt with a statement that said its members didn’t “share the post or comment on the post.” “It’s been a mess, that’s for sure,” said Brandon Gurley, the party’s chairman. ‘Honest and fair’ That Chattooga County, home to about 25,000 residents, is so open to Democratic politicians may come as a shock to many. After all, Gov. Brian Kemp won Chattooga last year with 80% of the vote, and no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the county since Bill Clinton in 1996. But the county has a long history of influential Democratic leaders that helped sway local politics, including James “Sloppy” Floyd, a powerful legislator who served 21 years in the Georgia House; Barbara Massey Reece, a former lawmaker known for her advocacy for veterans; and Bobby Lee Cook, a nationally known defense attorney who hangs his shingle in downtown Summerville. The knack for ticket-splitting helped cultivate an environment where Democrats reigned. Before last week’s exodus, seven countywide officials were Democrats, including the probate judge, the coroner and one of four school board members. That might be over now. Maddux has said he would run for another term as a Republican, while the other three haven’t said whether they planned to join the GOP. Another Democrat, Probate Judge Jon Payne, won’t stand for another term for the first time since he was elected in 1975 at the age of 26. “We’ve gradually seen this coming. We’ve seen a swing,” said Eddy Willingham, the local GOP chairman. “But I wouldn’t say it was a cause for celebration. We’re not rejoicing that the other side is losing. I cheer for my team. I don’t root against the other team.” Still, Maddux said local Democrats will continue to struggle with the national brand. “The Chattooga County Democratic Party is not the Democratic National Committee. They don’t represent that. These folks are hardworking, old-school Democrats who really don’t like to play politics,” Maddux said. “But I’m going where my values today are most reflected.” That’s a problem Hampton, the county tax commissioner, is still wrestling with even though she left the Democratic Party. After years of working in local government, she ran for the county post in 2016 as a Democrat because she was promised the party would help her run a clean campaign. She won by nine votes — and has struggled with whether to change her party affiliation since then. “I’ve debated it back and forth for a while but felt OK with where I was. But I finally got to a point where I was sick of national politics playing in,” Hampton said. “And my poor little mama would tell you I’ve never been one to do what the crowd says.” That becomes clear after a few minutes in her cozy office, painted yellow and cluttered with papers. She talked of the time she dropped an extra letter in her name to masquerade as “Joey” in elementary school to try out for the football team — she was quickly caught — and she pointed, admiringly, to a painting of her grandfather on the wall. “It’s hard. I’m either kin to, or I know, everybody here. It’s really hard to choose sides,” she said, pressed on whether she would join the GOP or run as an independent next year. “My grandfather always said, ‘Honest and fair,’ ” Hampton said. “Right now, I’m leaning to fair — I don’t want to do my job based on political affiliations.”
  • OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma made its first appearance in bankruptcy court Tuesday, less than a day after Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced in The Atlanta Journal Constitution that the state will join the bankruptcy deal. The company says it could mean $10 billion or more for the states, cities and towns that have sued. Detractors don’t believe that and say it doesn’t do enough. Carr says the risk of fighting the deal is worse than taking what’s offered and moving on. “The resources that will become available under the proposed structural framework will help Georgia combat the opioid crisis and address the needs of people living in our communities who have been devastated by the actions of those who fueled it,” Carr’s office said in a statement, noting that 180,000 Georgians have an opioid use disorder. “Even if the settling parties proceeded to a trial against the company, a jury verdict or court order — regardless of the amount it orders someone to pay — is only as good as the resources actually available to pay it,” the statement said. If the settlement pans out, no one knows yet how much money might come to Georgia or how the state might use it. But health officials said Tuesday that it’s critical that the money go to substance abuse treatment and coping with the crisis. “I want to see it used for recovery programs across our state. And I think there should be tight oversight to make sure that that’s done,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee. Like others, she cited the example of the nationwide tobacco settlement of 1998, when tobacco companies — who did not declare bankruptcy — agreed to pay more than $200 billion to states and programs. Much of that money wound up funding general state services. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids ranks Georgia among the lowest states for spending of its tobacco money on smoking cessation programs recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of the opioid epidemic to Georgia are legion. The state is arguing in its lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and other opioid companies that their actions not only led to addiction to their own drugs, but to other drugs down the line, after patients could no longer obtain prescriptions and turned to street drugs. The companies argue they cannot be held responsible for downstream harms. Those costs, according to the state’s lawsuit, include policing for a new wave of drug users, the expense of prosecuting and jailing offenders, and money paid to obtain drugs such as Narcan to interrupt overdoses and secure training for officers on how to use them. They also include foster care costs for children whose families have been blown apart by addiction. Not to mention rehab. There’s not enough, said Neil Campbell, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, and the resources that are there as well as those that are coming must be used for education on the science of addiction. “We have a huge shortage of behavioral health workforce,” she said. Perhaps 80% to 90% of people with opioid use disorder never get treatment, she and others said. And misguided or ineffective treatment based on outdated myths is a problem. Education statewide — for the general public as well as caregivers, emergency room doctors and nurses — is key, she said. Whatever the settlement amount is, it won’t erase the need for more insurance coverage for addicts, Campbell added. But such decisions are a long way away. And the settlement, as controversial as it is now, isn’t even likely to stay the same. Lindsey Simon, who teaches bankruptcy law as an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, spent Tuesday afternoon listening in by phone to Purdue Pharma’s first bankruptcy hearing. It went smoothly, she said, though it was clear the different parties are ready for a fight. “The settlement will likely change,” she said. “Because bankruptcy is just a protracted negotiation. Everybody knows that things can shift. It happens in the hallway right before a hearing. It happens at the break in hearings.” The biggest controversy is whether Purdue’s owner, the Sackler family, is getting away too easily. Massachusetts Attorney General Mara Healey, who opposes the settlement, has said the Purdue offer may only be worth $4 billion, and that it wouldn’t touch the billions of dollars the Sackler family has already banked from the sale of OxyContin. Healey said Tuesday in a tweet: “We need to see Purdue’s offer for what it is and most importantly, for what it is not. It’s not accountability. It’s not transparency. And it’s not making perpetrators pay.” Cooper understands the sentiment. She’s not privy to the details, she emphasized, but she said: “I personally would like to see the people who knew about it in jail. I think that would be about probably the only just, really correct punishment for them. But maybe that’s why the attorney general has decided that it’s best to go ahead. Maybe it’s that he feels we have a major crisis now, and it’s better to have the settlement money sooner rather than later.”
  • Gov. Brian Kemp formally started the process  to select a successor to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson on Tuesday by launching a website that potential applicants must use to apply for the job.  Kemp said applicants seeking to fill Isakson’s seat must submit their resume, address and contact information on his office’s website. The governor's choice will serve in the Senate next year and will likely be a candidate in a special election in November 2020 to determine who fills out the remainder of Isakson's term. The website is an attempt to be transparent in vetting potential candidates for the seat, an appointment that will likely be Kemp’s most consequential political decision. But it will also put some contenders in a vexing spot.   Politicians who are not openly jockeying for the position will have to quickly decide whether to apply, since not doing so will take them out of consideration.  It could be a particularly complicated situation for Republicans already seeking other office and private-sector officials who could face blowback from customers, employees and shareholders.  Kemp said in a statement that he and his aides “will carefully vet the applicants and choose a person who best reflects our values, our state and our vision for the future.”  More: An inside look: Who could seek Johnny Isakson's seat in 2020 More: The shadow campaign for Isakson's Senate seat  'Deep bench’ Isakson’s decision to retire at year’s end because of medical issues upended Georgia politics by triggering two U.S. Senate races in November 2020. The special election for Isakson’s seat will share the ballot with a contest to fill the seat held by U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is seeking a second term.  The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has “no timeline” to tap Isakson’s replacement, though he’s under pressure to make his selection long before the three-term Republican steps down Dec. 31.  Not only is Kemp’s pick expected to help shape Georgia’s 2020 race, but he or she could also share the ballot with the governor in 2022. To put it another way, Kemp has the chance to pick his own running mate. “We’re being very methodical, obviously hearing from a lot of people that have interest or think to recommend someone to me,” Kemp said this week. “There’s a deep, deep bench from us to pull from.” Three requirements Among the potential candidates who could apply are U.S. Reps. Doug Collins, Drew Ferguson and Tom Graves; former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, currently running for the seat in Congress she lost in November; Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, state Attorney General Chris Carr; and U.S. Attorney BJay Pak.  But Kemp seems just as likely to select a Republican who doesn’t fit the traditional Georgia GOP mold, such as a business executive, judicial official or law enforcement figure who has never run for statewide office before.   The governor has already surprised critics with his early appointments, including his pick of acting Insurance Commissioner John King, a low-profile local police chief who became the state’s first Hispanic constitutional officer. Kemp has also made a string of diverse, history-making selections for judicial posts. His office said the website will be open to all applicants as long as they meet the three requirements set out in the U.S. Constitution: Each candidate must be 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years and a resident of Georgia.  The dual Senate races also ensure that Georgia will be a 2020 battleground for Democrats, who hope to erase the GOP’s 53-47 edge in the chamber. Four Democrats have already lined up to challenge Perdue, and about a dozen others are weighing whether to compete for Isakson’s seat.  They include U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath; state Sens. Jen Jordan and Nikema Williams; DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond; DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston; the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church; and Lindy Miller, who lost a race last year for the state Public Service Commission.   
  • Two computers that are used to check in voters were stolen from a west Atlanta precinct hours before polls opened Tuesday for a city school board election. Officials replaced the computers before voters arrived, and the election wasn’t disrupted, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The express poll computers contain names, addresses, birth dates and driver’s license information for every voter in the state, said Richard Barron, Fulton County’s elections director. They don’t include Social Security numbers. They are password-protected, and the password changes for every election. The computers, which were in a locked and sealed case, haven’t been recovered. Poll workers discovered the burglary early Tuesday morning at the Grove Park Recreation Center near Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Atlanta police said they were first called to the recreation center at 12:30 a.m. on an alarm call. They found an unlocked door but saw no one inside. When election employees arrived, they told police “the kitchen had been ransacked,” a microwave had been moved to a different room, food items were missing and the express poll machines were missing, Atlanta police Sgt. John Chafee said. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he’s concerned about the stolen election equipment. “They may not have realized what they were stealing. They may have just thought they were stealing computer hardware of some sort, but they stole a whole lot more than they thought,” Raffensperger said. “They’re in a whole lot of trouble. There will be a thorough investigation.” At the Grove Park Recreation Center, turnout was low in the nine-way special election for school board District 2, a seat that became vacant when Byron Amos resigned to run for the Atlanta City Council. After casting his ballot, Sean Harris said he was able to vote without a problem. “I didn’t even know anyone had broken in,” Harris said. This isn’t the first time express poll units have been stolen in the state. In 2017, a Cobb County machine was stolen from a precinct manager’s car. Barron said the machines don’t connect to the internet and can’t be used for other purposes. He said they can’t be tracked. “I’m sure whoever took them had no idea what was in that case,” he said. “A Palm Pilot from 2000 is probably more sophisticated than those things. They’re pretty primitive pieces of equipment.” The check-in computers that were taken are part of Georgia’s 17-year-old voting system, which is scheduled to be replaced statewide starting with the March presidential primary election. The new voting system will come with iPads for voter registration check-ins, which will include additional security capabilities. The Apple operating system allows election officials to remotely erase data and track the locations of iPads. “These upgrades protect privacy and enhance security for the entire statewide voting system,” said Tess Hammock, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, which is also investigating the incident. “We encourage every county to secure its equipment, new or old, properly.” The Secretary of State’s Office trains county election officials on cyber and physical security, she said. Barron said he hoped voters’ information remained secure. He said it was frustrating to have to deal with the theft. “In this era of distrust of everything, it’s just another thing to have to explain,” Barron said. Atlanta police said they are working to identify who is behind the burglary. The school board seat wasn’t the only special election on Tuesday. Voters in the south part of Fulton County were also voting in a special election for a new District 6 commissioner to replace Emma Darnell, who died this spring. In addition to the theft, voters at the Southwest Arts Center were required to vote on provisional ballots when polls opened there. Barron said a 2-foot-long snake by the front door delayed normal voting.
  • For every dollar state agencies are proposing to cut to meet Gov. Brian Kemp’s order to slow spending, they’re requesting nearly two more to pay for programs, from education and health care to law clerks and fighting gangs. That’s because not all agencies are equal when it comes to cutting, or adding spending. State budget-writing is an exercise in addition and subtraction and what’s spent often depends on whether funding is based on how many people use services, and the priorities of governors and lawmakers. The result of Kemp’s call to reduce spending this year — starting Oct. 1 — by 4 percent, and 6 percent next year, is no different. While several agencies proposed cutting jobs and programs, K-12 schools and colleges requested about $400 million in additional funding this year and next to meet enrollment growth, and the agency that runs Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, disabled and elderly, asked for nearly $300 million, according to a review of budget plans by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some of the most costly things the state does — educating students, providing health care to the poor, and building roads — were exempt from Kemp’s edict to cut spending. In fact, about three-fourths of what the state spends — much of it for programs that are funded based on the number of Georgians enrolled in them — didn’t have to be cut back. Many of those areas asked for more money because their costs are rising. “Most of government is people driven, driven by the number of people who come through the door,” said Ben Harbin, a former Republican lawmaker who headed the state House Appropriations Committee during the Great Recession. “Education is seats in the desk. Medicaid is people walking into the doctor’s office. You can’t cut that. “You can say you want to spend less on it, but then you are cutting people. There is no way to cut those two things.” Kemp ordered the cuts in August to both prepare the state in case of an economic downturn and provide the money needed to meet his priorities, such as higher teacher pay. While K-12 school funding and the massive Medicaid program are exempt, agencies on the hook for cuts include the departments of Agriculture, Corrections, Driver Services, Public Health, public defenders, the Georgia State Patrol, the GBI, most of the Department of Natural Resources, and the administration of K-12 schools and colleges. Many of them submitted budget plans showing that they will cut jobs, the first significant reductions since the Great Recession. About $219 million would be cut this year and $310 million in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, 2020. Danny Kanso, an analyst for the left-leaning Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, said it’s hard to understand how eliminating the jobs of Georgia Bureau of Investigations forensic scientists and investigators, and cutting funding to domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers, mental health, economic development and school nutrition programs — all of which were proposed — would help prepare the state for a recession. “It would be really shocking, unless we think we are in a major downturn, that we would choose to pull millions of dollars from those areas,” said Kanso. “It’s unclear what purpose that would serve.” But state tax collections slowed the first two months of this fiscal year, which could be a sign of a slowing economy or that a cut in income tax rates lawmakers approved means less money is coming in. “It’s just the beginning of the fiscal year, but you can readily see why Gov. Kemp is being cautious about proceeding to spend the budget passed last session,” wrote Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, in his weekly newsletter. “Whether it is the income tax cut passed last year that started in January or some other factor adversely affecting Georgia’s revenue growth, there is little doubt Georgia has something amiss in its revenue collections.” At the same time some agencies are proposing big cuts, others have asked for more money this year and next. An AJC review of plans showed about $190 million in requests for this year and more than $700 million in fiscal 2021. The biggest chunk would go to run Georgia schools and universities. They receive money from the state based on enrollment, so when the number of students and cost goes up, so does what the state contributes. “Enrollment-driven programs have cost increases every year,” said Kanso, who served as an aide to former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. “That’s kind of what happens normally.” The agency that runs the HOPE scholarship program requested an extra $78 million next year to meet the expected need for college scholarship and grant money. Many of the agency’s programs, like HOPE, are funded by lottery ticket sales. But it also asked for more money for two that aren’t: one for a very popular program that allows high school students to earn college credits, and another that provides grants to Georgians attending a private college in the state. The court system asked for about a $7 million increase, including new law clerks, assistant district attorneys, and support staff for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Since the courts are a separate branch of government, the governor has to submit their requests to the General Assembly without making changes to their proposals. The agency that runs the state patrol requested $2.47 million for a new group of trooper recruits next year. In the budget line above the request, the Department of Public Safety notes it will have to cut $8.3 million from “field services and operations,” per the governor’s request. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations said it would eliminate jobs of forensic scientists and investigators, but asked for about $2.3 million in fiscal 2020 and 2021 for one of Kemp’s top campaign pledges, a task force to crack down on gangs. Most of the requests that were made were fairly routine, the kind that governors and lawmakers see every year. The governor’s decision to exempt so much of state spending from cuts means he may not have to consider the widespread reductions that occurred during the Great Recession. Then, tens of thousands of teachers and state employees were forced to take furlough days without pay. And those were the lucky ones, since many others were laid off. Funding, even for historically hard-to-cut programs, was reduced. But, even then, some agencies were hit a lot harder than others. “We cut Department of Natural Resources and agriculture 45 percent. We cut education three percent,” Harbin said. “There are certain things you just have to fund.”
  • The double-header U.S. Senate races in Georgia next year might give the Democratic National Committee an extra incentive to hold a presidential debate in Atlanta soon. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she and other state Democrats are in “very active discussions” with the party to schedule a debate in Georgia.  “I’m absolutely lobbying for it,” she said after the debate in Houston. “When you look at what’s at stake in Georgia – two Senate races – there aren’t many opportunities like that. To have that opportunity in Georgia, it only makes sense that we bring this field of candidates to our state.”  More: Isakson's retirement makes Georgia 'ground zero’ in 2020 More: How Atlanta’s mayor has emerged as one of Biden’s top supporters The party has already held three debates in Miami, Detroit and Houston, and the fourth showdown is planned for Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio. The schedule for the monthly debates has not yet been set for November or December, and the setting for debates in early 2020 is also unclear.  But Georgia’s growing role as a 2020 battleground state could bolster the state’s argument. White House hopefuls have already made more than two dozen visits to Georgia, lavishing the state with far more attention than past presidential elections.  And U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to retire at year’s end means two Senate contests will be on the ballot next year and guarantees that national Democrats will pour an unprecedented amount of money and attention into the state.  “Georgia represents the future of the Democratic Party,” said Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the state party. “We would love to see national candidates debate the issues in front of the Georgia voters who will take us to victory next year.”  
  • Houston – Surrounded by a ring of reporters in steamy parking lot, former Vice President Joe Biden was midway through an answer about how he’d address systemic discrimination when he nodded to the woman standing at his right. “I should let the mayor answer that – she deals with it in Atlanta every day,” he said. That would be Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who wore a black shirt with stark white letters that read “HBCU” as she joined Biden on Friday to tour the student center of Texas Southern University in Houston. No Georgia Democrat has played a more prominent role in promoting a White House hopeful than Bottoms, and her Texas trip to vouch for Biden during the third presidential debate demonstrated her growing commitment to his 2020 campaign. Since she endorsed Biden in June, Bottoms has emerged as one of the Democratic front-runner’s leading supporters in the South. She’s trekked to all three of the national debates to support Biden. She’s headlined a posh fundraiser for his campaign. She’s made the rounds on cable TV to plug his policies and defend his policy stances. And later this week, Bottoms will spend three days circling South Carolina, where Biden hopes to build a firewall for his presidential bid in case he falters during the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. That first-in-the-South primary will hinge on black voters, who make up 60% of the state’s Democratic electorate, and Bottoms – the second black woman elected mayor in Atlanta history — is a part of Biden’s plan to fuel his support among minority voters. Her endorsement, which made her one of the first Democratic officials in Georgia to choose a side, raised eyebrows in political circles. The timing didn’t help either – it came hours after he struggled to respond at the first debate to a searing critique of his one-time opposition to mandatory busing of students. But Bottoms has responded forcefully to criticism about her decision to back Biden over rivals calling for more strident change – including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who both campaigned with her in Atlanta to support her mayoral bid. She said she picked Biden because she sees him as the strongest candidate to defeat President Donald Trump, not to make a statement about the ideological divide over whether Democrats should seek modest changes or more structural overhauls of federal government. “My husband gave me a great example. He said if you’ve got someone in the emergency room with a stab wound, you’re not looking for a facelift or a tummy tuck. You’re looking to stop the bleed,” she said in an interview in Houston. “And Joe Biden is not only someone who can stop the bleed immediately, he can also take us to the next level.” ‘Right side of history’ A few weeks ago, Bottoms stood in the foyer of a Sandy Springs living room crammed with back-slapping candidates and high-dollar donors to welcome a special guest: The former vice president’s wife, Jill. The mayor told the crowd of about 100 that Biden supporters were on the “right side of history” and said Biden’s partnership with President Barack Obama created “one of the most progressive administrations in the history of the country.” As she uttered those words, only a handful of Georgia politicians had picked sides in the crowded presidential race — even some in the room hadn’t yet endorsed his bid. Since then, though, dozens more Georgia office-holders have come off the sidelines – and many of them have backed Biden. Some of the endorsements echo Bottoms’ reasons for backing Biden long before Georgia’s March 24 primary. “I like my politicians to be experienced and have a good chance at beating Trump,” said state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a House Democratic leader and one of 26 African-American state legislators who backed Biden last week. “The other candidates are great, but I’ve always leaned Joe – I agree more with his policies and way of thinking about governing.” ‘Shadow mayor’ Atlanta mayors have had a long track record of hitting the campaign trail for presidential contenders. Bottoms’ predecessor, Kasim Reed, was one of the leading Southern surrogates for Obama, a relationship that helped him partner with state Republican leaders who needed his White House connections to help open doors in a Democratic administration. He was so supportive of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 that rumors spread that he would be in line for a Cabinet appointment – perhaps the Secretary of Transportation – if she had won. Reed’s name was even on a lengthy list of potential running-mates sent to the candidate. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said that Bottoms, a “seasoned campaigner” with several election victories under her belt, is following a familiar path. “Other mayors have campaigned for their candidates in primaries: Andy Young for Jimmy Carter, Maynard Jackson for Walter Mondale and me for John Kerry and Barack Obama,” Franklin said. “I assume she will do as we did – which was to campaign for the party’s nominee, too.” But her extensive campaigning leaves her vulnerable to criticism that she’s spending too much time on the road and too little in City Hall, where an ongoing federal corruption probe and a debate about e-scooter use are just some of the issues her administration faces. Former City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who was narrowly defeated by Bottoms in 2017 and could seek a rematch in two years, said the Democrat has been out of town so often that Alvin Kendall, a lawyer who is a mentor and adviser to Bottoms, “has become the shadow mayor.” “Good for her if she wants to support former Vice President Biden. He’s a good man,” said Norwood. “But our city needs full-time, hands-on leadership from our elected officials right now.” ‘Natural transition’ Biden and Bottoms’ close relationship could pay off for both politicians, said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who was Obama’s southern regional director in 2012. Johnson said Bottoms will “have a direct line into Biden’s office” and a say in his key policies, including his criminal justice plan and his infrastructure proposals. In exchange, he’ll get a devoted defender who will travel the South to appeal to African-American voters who will decide the election. “She represents a key voting constituency for the Democratic party and with her high profile, she can go to key states for the vice president,” said Johnson. “They’ve known each other for a long time, and she’s capitalized on her relationship with him from the Obama administration. It’s a natural transition.” During an interview a few feet from the gaggle of reporters encircling Biden, Bottoms said Democrats learned a hard lesson after Clinton emerged from a damaging primary in 2016 to lose to Trump. “I don’t think we can leave this election up to chance. We had a solid candidate in 2016 and the numbers didn’t work out,” she said. “The better we consolidate around one candidate, the stronger we will be in November 2020.” Staff columnist Jim Galloway contributed to this report.
  • Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson returned to his beloved Senate this week for the first time since announcing his retirement armed with a secret plan. The three-term Republican, who over two decades on Capitol Hill has honed a reputation as an affable dealmaker, is determined to pull off one last major bipartisan policy coup before his Dec. 31 departure date. On which thorny policy issue, he refused to say. “I’m getting close to something I can tell you about, that I’ve been working on for some time,” Isakson said with a grin on Monday evening. “I’m not quite there yet.” Isakson’s renewed political resolve obscured the agonizing choice he made late last month to leave a job he loves in the face of mounting health problems. The decision surprised his closest allies. Save for a small circle of longtime advisers, he even kept most of his staff in the dark until shortly before the news went public. It instantly upended Georgia politics by teeing up a second U.S. Senate race for November 2020, a contest that some believe could determine party control of the chamber. Opening up about his decision in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Isakson, 74, said making the call to step down “was simple but it was hard.” “My mother used to tell me listen to your body. And my body was telling me that I was getting to the point where I couldn’t fulfill 100% of my commitment to the job and do it right,” he said. Fateful fall Ever since he announced in 2015 that he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder, Isakson’s team became adept at batting down stories about his future. He intended to finish up his term through 2022, they said, and some aides floated the possibility of him running for a fourth term as recently as May. That united front remained even as Isakson underwent two back surgeries in 2017 and started traversing the Capitol’s marble corridors in a wheelchair. The turning point came on July 16. Isakson had recently moved into a more handicap-accessible apartment in downtown Washington after his longtime Capitol Hill condo, with a temperamental elevator and lots of staircases, became too difficult to navigate. On his second night in the new apartment, he tripped. The fall was serious — he fractured four ribs and spent four days in the hospital and another six in inpatient rehab — but it was nearly much worse, and Isakson began thinking about whether he could continue his job in the U.S. Senate. Then came two MRIs that cemented his decision. One scan revealed Isakson had torn his rotator cuff. A second found that a previous cancerous growth on his kidney known as a renal cell carcinoma had doubled in size. “I was in a phase where I was asking myself ‘what in the world are you going to do?’” he said. “I had four broken ribs. I had a spot on my kidney. I was in the hospital. I’d had a bad fall, which was the fourth fall of significance I’d had in three years.” Isakson shared his retirement decision only with a tight circle of confidantes: his wife Dianne and trio of longtime aides that included Chief of Staff Joan Kirchner Carr, her deputy Trey Kilpatrick and political adviser Heath Garrett. The group then went to work to figure out timing. A dive into Georgia’s Constitution found that Isakson would have to stay in office until late September 2020 to avoid a special election, something he said he wasn’t physically able to do. They waited until Isakson successfully had surgery on Aug. 26 to remove the malignant 2.3-centimeter growth on his kidney before finalizing plans for him to resign four months later. He broke the news to the rest of his staff the morning of Aug. 28, shortly before the announcement was blasted out to the public. His office gave a heads-up to Gov. Brian Kemp but few others, and there was no pre-arranged deal to anoint an interim replacement. “I didn’t want to be the talk of the town,” Isakson said about keeping his decision private until the end. The announcement triggered a deluge of tributes from current and former colleagues in Georgia and Washington, as well as a rapid shadow campaign for his seat. The names of more than a dozen potential candidates quickly emerged, even as Kemp provided no clues about who he’d appoint to replace Isakson through next year. For his part, Isakson said he would not advise Kemp about a potential successor unless asked. And he outlined an ambitious list of priorities for his months left in Washington, including securing new funding for the Savannah port, confirming a Georgia judicial nominee and wrapping up loose ends on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which he leads. Isakson said he was still adjusting to his new reality, one that includes a stricter diet, no more driving and a steady stream of goodbyes. In the meantime, he’s resolved to soak in his remaining time in the Senate. He was in a chipper mood as he returned to Capitol Hill on Monday, greeting the elevator operator with a “hey darlin’,” and chuckling with colleagues for more than an hour on the Senate floor, his new walker within arms’ reach. After the final vote of the evening, he huddled at the front of the chamber with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his longtime friend and ally. The conversation, he later let slip, was about the mysterious new legislative push on which he wouldn’t elaborate. “It’s my concoction that I think Democrats and Republicans will like a lot,” he said. “That’s why I’m cryptic about it… I made some good progress today.”
  • Georgia’s congressional delegation is deeply divided on how to tackle the kinds of mass shootings that shook the nation last month.  Many local lawmakers returned from the August recess this week seemingly hardened in their pre-existing beliefs on whether and how to limit access to guns, reflecting the deep mistrust that’s emanated from their party leadership even after tragedies in Dayton and El Paso offered a sliver of hope that bipartisan agreement was possible. The narrowing window for compromise was evident on Tuesday afternoon, when House Democrats decided to move ahead on three gun control measures without GOP buy-in and President Donald Trump huddled with Republican leaders in the White House.  Several Georgia Democrats said August’s twin shootings represented a wake-up call for Congress to tighten gun control laws and vowed to push on even as Trump offered mixed signals about what he would be willing to sign.  “Too often we are told that we must accept these tragedies. We’re told that instead of changing our laws we must have more lockdown drills, more security guards, more bullet-proof glass and more vigils for those we have lost,” said U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, a freshman who became a gun control activist after her teenage son was fatally shot in 2012. “Inaction is absolutely unacceptable.” McBath is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that cleared a trio of gun control bills late Tuesday. Among them was a federal “red flag” proposal that would incentivize states to allow judges to order the temporary seizure of weapons from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, which supporters say could have prevented some recent mass shootings.  While some Republicans had initially appeared open to such legislation after last month’s events in El Paso, they rejected Tuesday’s version as they waited for word from Trump.   Gainesville Congressman Doug Collins led the opposition as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  'What I'm not willing to do is support legislation that will not do anything to make us safer and simultaneously infringes on the rights and liberties guaranteed by our Constitution,” he said, warning that the “red flag” bill could infringe on due process by allowing guns to be confiscated “without notice or an opportunity to be heard” for people who are targeted.  Georgia Republicans instead voiced support for more tailored alternatives as they waited for Trump to announce his position on broader gun fights.  Collins recirculated information about his bill that seeks to make it easier for law enforcement to share information about violent threats, which he argues would spur the kind of coordination that could have prevented other mass shootings. Tifton Republican Austin Scott, who represents a largely rural district in south-central Georgia, said he was open to upping the minimum age for purchasing certain classes of semi-automatic weapons. Scott said he was also eyeing legislation to close the “Charleston loophole” in the background check system that currently allows some gun dealers to transfer firearms before the FBI completes required background checks. (The bill is co-sponsored by the retiring Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.) “I think people are open to having an honest discussion on policy,” Scott said of Republicans. “What we’re not open to is continuing the kangaroo games that have been played by the Democratic leadership. And quite honestly I don’t expect Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi will be willing to put a bill on the floor that President Trump will sign on guns or anything else.”  Democrats indicated they had similar misgivings about the right.  Lithonia Democrat Hank Johnson said Republicans, including Trump, are “simply not operating in good faith” on firearms.  Even if Democrats were to offer more middle-of-the-road gun control proposals, he said, “Republicans are either going to try and water them down even more or oppose them altogether.” Johnson wants Congress to ban the sale and manufacture of assault weapons, constrain high-capacity magazines and expand background checks.  “It’s not just the occasional mass killings that are done by assault weapons that has my constituents so concerned about gun reform,” he said. “It is every day, night-by-night crime with firearms causing the deaths of our young people.”  The state’s House delegation voted along party lines earlier this year to advance a bill that would expand background checks for the sale and transfer of firearms. It so far has languished on the Senate’s doorstep.  Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is running for re-election next year, previously expressed deep reservations about “red flag”  bills, even as his Democratic opponents have pushed for sweeping gun control proposals. The Georgia Republican who has shown the most willingness to compromise in recent days has been U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is retiring at the end of the year. Isakson said Monday he wouldn’t rule out any potential solutions but said he’d like to see what Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are open to accepting first.  “I want to support a solution,” he said.  Read more: The gun rights debate in Georgia intensifies with 2020 nearing