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Political Headlines

    A federal judge has ordered Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to answer questions about his statements on minority voter registration and his oversight of election investigations. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled that Kemp must submit to two hours of questioning in a lawsuit over problems in last year’s election for governor. As secretary of state, Kemp was Georgia’s chief elections official until he resigned after Election Day. The lawsuit is asking the courts to intervene in Georgia’s elections following voter purges, absentee ballot cancellations, precinct closures and other allegations of obstacles to voting. The lawsuit was filed by Fair Fight Action, a group founded by allies of Kemp’s general election opponent last year, Democrat Stacey Abrams. “Only then-Secretary Kemp can explain what he actually meant” when he expressed concerns about Democrats’ efforts to register more minority voters, Jones ruled Thursday. Kemp’s comments about minority voters came during remarks to a group of Gwinnett County Republicans in 2014. “You know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November. But we’ve got to do the exact same thing,” Kemp said. Kemp called on those in attendance to register more Republican voters. Jones wrote that Kemp can also provide information about whether state election officials quickly investigated and addressed complaints. In his job as secretary of state, Kemp was the chairman of the State Election Board with the power to schedule meetings and agendas. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are questioning why some county election officials weren’t sanctioned for violations of voting laws, and how it investigated complaints about voting irregularities. Jones ruled against several other efforts to question Kemp about Georgia’s voter registration cancellations, “exact match” registration policy, polling place closures and training of local election officials. Those inquiries can be addressed by other election officials in the secretary of state’s office, Jones said. Kemp’s deposition must be completed by Jan. 10 in a location of his choosing, according to Jones’ order. Abrams has already been deposed, along with several state election officials, Jones wrote. Attorneys for Kemp declined to comment on the pending litigation. Fair Fight also didn’t comment on the judge’s ruling. The depositions are part of the evidence discovery process in the lawsuit. Then the case could move toward a trial, which was originally scheduled to begin March 23, one day before the Georgia presidential primary. Jones’ order put the lawsuit’s schedule on hold for now. — Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article
  • A Democratic state senator is renewing a call for Georgia to apologize for its role in the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation practices. State Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat, filed a resolution this week that would have the state formally acknowledge “with profound regret” slavery and Jim Crow. James, who is 71, said she remembers growing up in Atlanta during the time of Jim Crow. She said she remembers feeling hurt when she wasn’t allowed into the Capitol when her Catholic elementary school visited in the ‘60s. “We need at least an apology for the Jim Crow and for the slavery and for the discrimination,” she said.  Similar measures have been proposed in Georgia before but failed to get approval.  James said the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus has discussed the need for the state to apologize for slavery since she first served in the Legislature in 1995. “For more than 20 years we’ve teen talking about this, so it’s about time that we got an apology,” she said. In 2013, when U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk served in the state Senate, the North Georgia Republican filed a resolution saying the state should express “profound remorse and lamentations” for slavery. Then-Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, also a Republican, proposed similar resolutions in 2007 and 2009. Several black House Democrats, including Midway Democratic state Rep. Al Williams, also have introduced similar legislation in previous years. At least nine states have passed similar acknowledgements in the past dozen years, beginning with Virginia in 2007. Since then, states including Alabama, Tennessee and, most recently, Delaware in 2016.
  • At a black-tie gala for Georgia 4-H in August, finance executive Kelly Loeffler told the crowd of farmers, instructors and students how she got her start — tending soybeans and corn and caring for cattle on her family’s farm in rural Illinois. “Whether it’s memories of working with my dad in the feed lot with our cattle or sewing and baking with my mom, these are things, priceless memories, that have also helped me in the business world,” Loeffler said. That night, the youth service organization announced a $200,000 donation from Loeffler to help restore a historic chapel that burned in February. At the head table with Loeffler and her husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, was another power couple they didn’t know well: Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp. It was just a couple of weeks before U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson would announce his retirement. Nearly four months later, Gov. Kemp picked Loeffler to succeed Isakson. With the pick, Kemp bucked his ally, President Donald Trump, and some hardliners in his party who wanted a proven Trump loyalist such as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, and who have painted Loeffler as a closeted liberal. Loeffler flirted with a Senate run in 2014, but is largely a blank slate, sharing little publicly about her stands on policy in her 17 years in Georgia. She and her husband have done most of their political talking through six-figure checks to Republican candidates and causes, and smaller ones to a smattering of Democrats. Only recently have she and her husband donated to Trump. Though largely unknown to average Georgians, the 49-year-old Loeffler is prominent in Atlanta business circles and beyond as an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, known as ICE, the publicly traded parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Last year, she became CEO of ICE’s bitcoin trading subsidiary Bakkt. She’s perhaps best known to the public as a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Her rise from Illinois farm hand to accomplished business executive reveals quintessential American virtues of ambition and hard work. Her personal financial success also captures the nation’s yawning income inequality. Despite repeated requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Loeffler’s representatives did not make her available for this story. The AJC interviewed nearly a dozen people — some who went on the record, and others who declined to be named. Most all spoke of Loeffler as a tenacious and ambitious business executive who works hard and expects the same rigor from her staff. She’s said to be well-prepared, detail-oriented and a good listener, but few offered specific examples. Loeffler will not be required to disclose her finances until later, but the available public record shows that she and her husband are worth in excess of $500 million, putting her among the one-tenth of one percent of richest Americans. The couple own million dollar-plus homes in at least three states, including a $10 million estate in Buckhead and a $4 million condominium on Sea Island. Once sworn in, Loeffler will instantly vault to the top ranks of the richest members of Congress, a group that also includes Georgia Sen. David Perdue. Political scientist Kerwin Swint at Kennesaw State University said rivals — particularly Democrats — will likely highlight Loeffler’s wealth to say she’s out-of-touch with average Georgians. But Swint said being rich isn’t “the stigma it was just a few years ago,” pointing to Perdue, a former CEO. “If you look at the House and the Senate, millionaires tend to be more common than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Swint said. Politically, many observers hope Loeffler will help the GOP regain voters — particularly white suburban Atlanta women — turned off by Trump. “We’ve got enough angry white men in the Republican Party,” said Jay Morgan, a lobbyist who has known Loeffler more than a decade. “We need some diversity.” On Wednesday, in her introductory news conference, Loeffler  pledged allegiance to Trump and decried Democrats’ efforts to impeach the president as a “circus.” She said she would defend the Second Amendment, support Trump’s border wall and conservative judges and will be a fierce opponent of abortion. “Contrary to what you might see in the media, not every strong American woman is a liberal,” she said. “Many of us are conservative and proud of it.” Farm values Loeffler grew up in Bloomington, Ill., midway between St. Louis and Chicago. “We lived simply. Life revolved around farming, church, school and 4-H,” she said in Wednesday’s press conference. “There was a rhythm to our lives: we planted in the spring, I showed cattle at the county fair in the summer and in the fall we harvested. Sundays were for church and family.” Loeffler told the AJC in 2011 interview that by age 10 she filed a time card for her work weeding the soybean fields. She knew more about commodity prices and futures than math because her mother wrote commodity prices down on a kitchen napkin every day for her father and grandfather when they came in for lunch, Kemp said Wednesday. “That’s what interested her about working in the markets,” he said. Loeffler said she waited tables to earn money in high school. On the basketball court, a teenage Loeffler, 5-foot-11 and thin as a string bean, earned the nickname NBC — “Newborn Calf.” “I’d fall and pop back up,” she told the AJC in 2011 after buying a stake in the Atlanta Dream. After high school, she made her way to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Later, she mortgaged family land to gin up $90,000 needed for her MBA at DePaul University. Her resume is dotted with a who’s who of big-name companies, including Toyota, Citibank and investment bank William Blair. Power couple In 2002, she followed a boss to go work for the upstart ICE. There she met Sprecher, the founder of the company. Loeffler ultimately became head of investor relations, marketing and communications. They wed in 2004. Loeffler helped lead communications with the investment community when ICE went public in 2005. Over the next 14 years, ICE gobbled up the New York Board of Trade and in 2013 closed on its largest-ever transaction, a $11 billion deal to acquire the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. The deal made ICE one of the world’s most influential companies, playing a critical role in the stock market, global finance and international trade. Trades across its networks influence the prices of everything from gasoline to groceries to the holdings of most people’s retirement accounts. The company has dazzled Wall Street with its ability to streamline companies and make commodity trading smoother and more transparent. But critics are likely to focus on the fact that that modernization to electronic trading often came at the expense of slashing trading jobs. In 2018, Sprecher chose Loeffler to lead a new venture, Bakkt, aimed at bringing cryptocurrency into the mainstream. Pete Keseric, her mentor in business school and a former DePaul trustee, said Loeffler impressed him with her ability to move seamlessly from the auto industry to finance and into ICE’s world of commodity exchanges and now bitcoin. “My eyes glaze over when someone starts talking about (bitcoin) and I’m in the banking business,” he said. “She understands it. … You can tell she knows what she’s talking about.” Money and politics Loeffler brings with her the means to self-fund not only a 2020 special election and potential runoff — she’s said to have pledged $20 million of her own fortune to the effort — but also a 2022 primary and general election when Kemp will be up for a second term. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show Loeffler earned $1 million in salary and bonuses in each of the past two years. She controls about $18 million in ICE stock and stock options and $15.6 million in long-term investments in Bakkt, a joint venture with ICE that’s supported by blue-chip names like Microsoft and Starbucks. An AJC analysis of ICE regulatory filings shows Sprecher controls nearly $500 million in ICE stock, and Sprecher earned $39.7 million in total compensation from 2016 to 2018. The couple owns a high-rise condo in Chicago valued at more than $4 million, real estate records show. Loeffler and Sprecher each own $1 million-plus houses on a golf course in The Villages, a giant retirement community in central Florida. In 2009, the couple purchased a $10.5 million mansion and an adjoining property for $1.15 million along Buckhead’s exclusive Tuxedo Road, real estate records show. Outside business, Loeffler and Sprecher rank among the Republican Party’s top donors in the past decade with nearly $4 million in contributions to federal campaigns and political action committees. For the last seven campaign cycles the company operated the Intercontinental Exchange PAC, which has spent an additional $1 million in political donations. The couple contributed nothing to the Trump campaign in 2016 and nothing to Kemp in his 2018 race for governor. But in the weeks before she applied for the Senate seat, the couple reportedly each ponied up $100,000 for a recent Trump fundraiser in Atlanta. Since 2011, ICE has spent on average $1.6 million annually on lobbyists to influence financial regulations related to the trading of securities. As a senator, Loeffler will have a say over regulation and the appointment of regulators who oversee financial markets, which include her own companies. Donald Sherman, deputy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Loeffler couldn’t trade on inside information, but Senate rules wouldn’t force her to divest her investments in her companies. Senate rules also wouldn’t prohibit her from serving on committees governing banking or energy or trade, which could affect ICE’s business. “The Senate rules are so weak, and the bar for compliance is not very high,” he said. Civic engagement Loeffler serves on the boards of Grady Memorial Hospital, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, mental health treatment center Skyland Trail and the Georgia Research Alliance. She and Sprecher also have played key roles with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which Sprecher chaired a few years ago. ICE was one of the first companies to contribute to Choose ATL, the chamber’s effort to recruit young professionals. Paul Bowers, Georgia Power president and CEO, said the company picked Loeffler to be on the company’s board in October because of her knowledge of cryptocurrency, energy markets and European carbon trading markets. “The first thing she does is she seeks to understand. She asks probing questions,” he said. Loeffler joined the board of Skyland Trail in 2013 about the time she considered her first Senate run. Beth Finnerty, CEO of Skyland Trail, said Loeffler cares about quality mental health care. Loeffler helped Skyland raise $1 million at its marquee donor event this year. “She is gracious and kind and is a great listener,” said Finnerty. Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen said Loeffler is a supportive owner of the WNBA team. Loeffler, who owns the team with businesswoman Mary Brock, is a fixture courtside with Sprecher. Collen said she suspects most WNBA players, including Dream players, lean left. “They may not be too excited about her political views, but I don’t think that affects what they think of Kelly Loeffler,” said Collen. “Without owners like her and Mary, they wouldn’t have this job in this country.”
  • PoliticsGov. Brian Kemp has named businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to fill the U.S. Senate seat Johnny Isakson is vacating at the end of the year for health reasons. In the application she submitted to the governor’s office just under the deadline, Loeffler wrote about how she would support President Donald Trump and help “Keep America Great.” In 2014, she considered running for an open U.S. Senate seat but passed up the opportunity. She said then, though, that she was concerned that “the average family or individual is being left behind and may not have the same opportunities that I had coming out of public schools just a couple of decades ago.” Political assetsA multimillionaire, Loeffler will be able to self-finance her campaign in what could be an expensive special election next year to fill the remaining two years on Isakson’s term. Political observers say she also may be able to bring back suburban women who have left the Republican Party during the Trump administration. Political liabilitiesLoeffler is not a favorite of the conservative wing of Georgia’s Republican Party. When her name surfaced as a contender for Isakson’s seat, critics circulated screen shots of past donations to Democrats, as well as more recent contributions from her company’s political action committee. They also contrasted her support for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 – when she gave $750,000 to the candidate’s PAC – with her lack of financial support for Trump’s 2016 campaign for the White House. She has since ponied up to his campaign, including a $100,000 gift to participate in Trump’s Nov. 8 roundtable in Atlanta. CareerLoeffler is the CEO of the financial services firm Bakkt and a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, the city’s WNBA franchise. She used to be the chief communications and marketing officer and head of investor relations for the Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange, a financial trading platform that owns the New York Stock Exchange. Intercontinental Exchange was founded by Loeffler’s husband, Jeff Sprecher. Other professional activitiesLoeffler also serves on the boards of Georgia Power and Grady Memorial Hospital. She has also served on the boards of the Georgia Research Alliance and Skyland Trail, a nonprofit residential treatment center for mental health serving adolescents ages 14-17 and adults. BackgroundLoeffler was born in Bloomington, Ill., and grew up on the family farm, where she worked in the soybean fields. In high school, she competed in cross country, track and basketball. SchoolingA bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1992. A master of business administration from DePaul University in 1999. > It’s official: Georgia governor taps Kelly Loeffler to replace Isakson > Updates: Read more about Kelly Loeffler and Georgia Politics > Related: Who is Doug Collins?
  • Stacey Abrams’ campaign on Wednesday asked a judge to deny the Georgia ethics commission’s demand for more documents linked to the Democrat’s 2018 race for governor, saying it had already sufficiently complied with the panel’s request. It said the commission was seeking documents from the campaign of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s top rival that are unrelated to campaign finance issues — which are within the panel’s jurisdiction. And it said that it has no documents showing illegal coordination between the campaign and third-party groups that backed her unsuccessful bid for governor. The commission said in a Fulton County Superior Court filing earlier this month that it requested thousands of documents as part of its probe into possible coordination between Abrams and so-called independent groups. Such groups spent millions of dollars backing Abrams, but, by law, they are not allowed to coordinate directly with a campaign. The Abrams campaign said it handed over thousands of documents to the commission’s investigators, and that the judge didn’t have jurisdiction to rule in such a preliminary investigation with the commission still not having shown there is evidence a violation occurred. “This court, as a matter of first impression, is being asked to find that the commission has the power to turn upside down every single campaign for public office in the State of Georgia, and to shake out and pull into the public record every document, email, and utterance unrelated to campaign finance, without regard to the subject matter of the communication,” the campaign’s filing said. “There is no law that supports this approach, though there are many that condemn it.” Earlier this month, David Emadi, the executive director of the commission, said the Abrams campaign “refused to comply with the lawfully issued subpoenas” the authority filed, “so we are taking the same legal measures we have taken in all other cases where the respondent has refused to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas.” Emadi angered Abrams’ backers shortly after he took office in April by saying he would subpoena her campaign records and those of groups that supported her. The commission sought all correspondence between the campaign and a number of groups that registered and mobilized voters, many with a focus on energizing minorities. They included the voting rights group Abrams helped launch after her defeat last year and a nonprofit co-founded by state Sen. Nikema Williams, the head of the state Democratic Party. Emadi revealed that investigators intend to present evidence the Abrams campaign accepted donations from four groups that exceeded maximum contribution limits for a statewide campaign. Abrams’ attorney has denied the claim, and her campaign manager said the commission has failed to prove any wrongdoing. Abrams’ supporters have pointed to Emadi’s past ties to the Republican Party to accuse him of bias. He is a former officer in the Douglas County GOP and donated $600 to Kemp’s campaign. But one of the first major cases taken before the commission since Emadi took office was the long-running investigation into former Republican Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who is accused of, among other things, illegally using campaign money to put a down payment on a house and to pay for luxury car leases and child care. The commission’s probe into Oxendine’s campaigns stemmed from two Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations. In Wednesday’s filings, the Abrams campaign asserted that the commission wanted documents containing internal communications on things such as strategy that are unrelated to possible campaign finance violations, and that all its documents would be open to the public, which is typical of ethics cases once they are closed. Abrams’ top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, said Emadi’s “demands are a weaponization of government and a dangerous affront to free expression of political opinion and activity for every campaign for every public office in the state of Georgia.” “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and common sense alike refute that the commission’s whim of undisclosed suspicion is sufficient rationale for seizure of private campaign communications,” she said.
  • Rural Georgians are more likely to need the help of food stamps to pay for their groceries, but that public help probably doesn’t stretch as far as it does in places such as Atlanta because of higher food prices in small-town stores. Poor, rural Georgians pay more for fresh lettuce, macaroni and cheese, and other foods in part because there is so little competition for their business, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review. Georgia’s lawmakers have spent the past several years focusing on ways to boost the economy in rural areas, but little has been done to address the emergence of food deserts across the state as grocery stores go out of business. It’s a trend occurring across the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 5 million people in rural areas have to travel 10 miles or more to buy groceries. Some experts say the federal government should invest even more in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — to improve access to food for rural Georgians who typically have lower incomes, are more likely to receive the benefit but have to pay the higher prices. “It’s just another variable that makes it difficult for people to become self-sufficient and self-sustaining,” said Frank Sheppard, the president and CEO of the Feeding the Valley food bank that services Terrell County. But the mostly Republican rural lawmakers in the General Assembly balk at the idea of expanding access to food stamps and instead have passed legislation that limits who and how long someone can receive the benefits that impact the people they represent. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stop short of suggesting an increased benefit amount but instead support a revised formula based on need. The 25 ZIP codes with the highest rates of people receiving food stamps were all in rural counties, according to an AJC analysis of state records. Conversely, the 25 ZIP codes with the lowest rates of food stamp disbursement all were in the Atlanta area. The review of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by ZIP code found that residents with a Dawson ZIP code in southwest Georgia between Columbus and Albany were the most likely to receive assistance in Georgia. Those southwest Georgia residents will likely pay more for groceries than someone who lives in parts of Atlanta where the rate of people receiving food stamps is lower than anywhere else in the state. Experts say there are a number of reasons grocery prices are higher, including few stores creating a lack of competition and the time it takes to deliver goods to more rural parts of the state. A person buying a head of iceberg lettuce last month in the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Dawson paid $2.99. In the Kroger on Metropolitan Parkway in Atlanta, a head of iceberg lettuce cost $1.49. Many Dawson shoppers were shocked to learn groceries were more expensive in their area. “You usually think cost of living is higher in cities than it is here,” said Brenda, a teacher’s aide who asked that her last name be withheld as a condition of her speaking publicly about her personal finances and the stigma of receiving public benefits. Brenda said she is one of the thousands in Dawson who scramble to make ends meet and receive assistance from SNAP to help feed their families. She said people in the area struggle to find good-paying jobs and need help from SNAP and other resources to make sure they can put food on the table. Steve Ricks, a retired truck driver who lives in Dawson, said he’d noticed the difference in prices where he lives versus other more populated parts of the state. He said many times he’ll drive the 20-plus miles to Albany to get cheaper food or gas, but he recognizes that’s not an option for everyone. “Some people have to buy everything here because they don’t have the transportation to get there,” he said. “They need to do something to change the prices and make it more in line.” By the numbers Terrell County has one of the highest rates of “food insecurity” in the state. Food insecurity is when at least one member of a household does not have enough food due to economic constraints, said Craig Gundersen, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana who studies access to food. “Oftentimes in a lot of these smaller, rural counties, what you’re going to have is lower average incomes, so more people are eligible to receive SNAP,” Gundersen said. When you add higher food prices to the equation, it exacerbates food insecurity in rural areas, he said. Almost 3,300 people living in Terrell County received SNAP benefits in March — making up more than 38% of its 8,600-some residents, an AJC analysis found. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 33% of Terrell County residents were estimated to live in poverty as of July. The median annual household income was about $32,000 in 2017. The median household income for Georgia was about $53,000, and the Census Bureau estimated that 14% of the state’s residents live in poverty. State Rep. Gerald Greene, a Cuthbert Republican whose district includes Dawson, said he knows many of his constituents rely on food stamps to pay for groceries. “There are many individuals out there that are in need,” Greene said. “If we find out that there’s somebody that’s suffering throughout the district, Sen. (Freddie Powell) Sims and I both are on it trying to find ways to assist them.” Sims, a Dawson Democrat, also represents the area. Over the course of a week, an AJC reporter visited grocery stores in Dawson, Blakely and the Atlanta ZIP codes — where food stamp use is low — to compare prices on 17 basic food items, such as bread, milk, eggs, canned tuna, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs. On average, food in Dawson was more expensive than the other areas visited. A can of store-brand green beans cost $1.19 in the Dawson Piggly Wiggly, compared with 65 cents at the Kroger on Metropolitan Parkway in Atlanta. A Dawson shopper would have paid $50.49 to purchase all 17 items at the Piggly Wiggly. Those same 17 items would have cost $40.97 at the Kroger on Metropolitan. The average household of two people received $265 in food stamps in March, according to the state Division of Family and Children Services. The amount someone receives in SNAP benefits is determined by income, household size and various monthly expenses, such as rent, electricity and gas, as set by the federal government. Because housing is more expensive in Atlanta, it’s possible that a Dawson resident would receive less money through SNAP even though he or she will pay more for groceries. The disparity in food costs isn’t only found between cities and rural areas, but within cities, said Sheppard, the food bank CEO. “I have noticed higher grocery prices in not only rural areas, but also I have experienced that before in the city of Columbus in an area that is the more highly impoverished part of town,” Sheppard said. Why is food more expensive in rural Georgia? Industry experts and economists point to a variety of reasons why food costs vary depending upon location. Factors such as the cost of theft, competition and transporting goods to stores all play a part in determining how much food will cost. “The supermarket industry has a very low profit margin (averaging just over 1%) and the price a customer sees on a supermarket’s shelves will be based on many factors,” said Kathy Kuzava, the president of the Georgia Food Industry Association. “For example, a rural store has a higher cost of operations, including higher costs in freight charges to get product to the store.” Even in urban areas, studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service have found that fewer supermarkets lead to higher prices. A 2018 study found that food prices were 9.2% higher in urban areas where at least one-third of the population lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket compared with those who have greater access to food stores. “Consumers in neighborhoods with limited numbers of supermarkets would have to pay the higher prices or travel farther to shop for their foods, incurring travel time and expenses,” the researchers wrote. Sims, the Dawson state senator, said the closure of grocery stores in her area over several years has allowed surviving supermarkets to benefit from lack of competition and charge more for their food. “The more stores you have and more competition, the lower prices are going to be,” she said. “That’s the biggest problem. Much of Terrell County is in a food desert, and until recently, they did not have a functioning food bank.” Sheppard said the amount of food his Midland-based organization distributes has continued to climb. “There’s a lot of need here,” he said. “People have limited resources, and then there’s the cost of living in a food desert that leads to high rates of food insecurity.” According to the Map the Meal Gap study of food insecurity, the average meal in Georgia cost $2.93 in 2017, with 14.4% of the state’s population having gone hungry at some point that year. In Terrell County, nearly 25% of its population went hungry in 2017, according to the study. Gundersen, who leads research for the study, said a lot of times, the cost of food comes down to whether there’s a Walmart nearby. “If you have a Walmart, you’re going to have lower food prices,” he said. “Less competition makes prices higher.” Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said only having access to more expensive food puts financial stress on people who already are having a hard time. “The implication is that families in rural areas or nonmetro Atlanta areas are having to work twice or three times more to stretch their dollar,” he said. Brenda, the Dawson resident, said it’s unfair that people living in poorer parts of the state have to pay more for groceries than their urban counterparts. “The government needs to do something to help us in rural areas,” she said. But she’s not sure what can be done. ‘Certain things we don’t know how to address’ Georgia lawmakers have worked to revive the rural economy, resulting in incremental steps toward internet access, health care and business growth. The Legislature has invested millions of dollars to try to bring jobs to rural areas, such as the creation of the Center for Rural Prosperity in Tifton, which has an annual budget of $1.7 million. They’ve also supported policies that limit access to food stamps, such as the reinstatement of work requirements that led to nearly 200,000 fewer people receiving SNAP between mid-2018 and early 2019. Both Greene and Sims said they will continue to help residents who have difficulty accessing food by making them aware of the programs that are available — including the Feeding the Valley food bank and meal programs offered by schools. But they’re not sure anything can be done to lower grocery store prices. “There are certain things we can address and certain things we don’t know how to address,” Greene said. “But we’re not going to get into a situation where you start telling people what to charge.” Ricks, the retired truck driver, said he worried about people taking advantage of food stamps and that the best way his neighbors could combat poverty was to get education, training and better-paying jobs. “I want people who are in need to get them so they can eat. Nobody should go hungry,” he said. “But it needs to be better regulated. I’ve seen kids use food stamp cards to get a Coke and a bag of potato chips. That shouldn’t happen.” Gundersen, the Illinois researcher, said the best way to ensure more people have access to healthy food options is to increase not only the amount of money each person can receive in food stamps, but to increase the number of people who are eligible for the benefit across the state. “The most important thing is to continue to allow states to set higher gross income thresholds to make more people eligible for the program and increase SNAP benefit levels,” he said. “There’s no more effective way.” Sheppard, the food bank leader, agreed that SNAP benefits should be increased, but he said the government should consider more factors when determining how much someone received. “There can be a systematic way of doing it,” he said. “They can consider those under more dire circumstances — like those in food deserts or impoverished areas to offset the higher cost of groceries and the cost of transportation.” But Sims said she knows changing the pay structure is a heavy request. “One thing government is slow to do is to change the way they do things based on how factors in society change over time,” she said. “Until then, we need to make sure people know about these organizations that spend a lot of time trying to make certain that people have opportunities to have a better quality of life.”
  • About 90 Georgia voters appear to have prevented their registrations from being canceled by participating in this month’s elections, but the vast majority of the state’s 313,000 planned cancellations are moving forward. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the list of voters who cast ballots this month found 90 registration numbers that match names of people who had been scheduled for cancellation in December. Voting is one of the ways Georgians can protect their registrations. Election officials intend to remove 313,000 of the state’s 7.4 million registered voters, about 4%, because they moved away or haven’t participated in elections for at least seven years. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has said that inactive voters probably relocated to another state, meaning they aren’t eligible to vote in Georgia. Critics of Georgia’s “use it or lose it” law, which cancels infrequent voters every other year, say it jeopardizes the voting rights of residents just because they haven’t cast ballots recently. About 121,000 registrations are being canceled for inactivity since 2012 or earlier; the other 192,000 either filed change-of-address forms or mail from election officials was returned as undeliverable. Voter registrations can be canceled for inactivity after they failed to have any contact with election officials for three years and then didn’t participate in the next two general elections. Voters on the state’s cancellation list were mailed notices this month, and their registrations won’t be removed if they sign and return postage-paid postcards within 30 days. They can also restore their voting status by re-registering to vote. Voters can also check their registration status online by visiting the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.
  • The Democratic showdown arrives in Atlanta on Wednesday with the race for president as fluid as ever. Impeachment proceedings have distracted attention from the contest, even as two new candidates have either launched a campaign or threatened a run. Moderate contenders are enjoying rising poll numbers after months of focus on the party’s more liberal wing. And Georgia Democrats, long hungry for a chance to showcase the state before a national audience, are eager for their moment in the sun. Related: From protests to watch parties: Debate events happening in Atlanta Related: The major issues in Georgia Related: Where to find the White House hopefuls in Georgia this week Into this mix enters 10 top candidates, who will have a bit more room on the stage at Tyler Perry Studios but less time to make their point. The debate features two fewer contenders than last month’s meetup in Ohio — and will stretch two hours instead of three. Here are a few key things to watch about Wednesday’s debate: How will Georgia make its presence known?  White House hopefuls have hardly talked about voting rights during their first four Democratic debates, but that could change as the event lands in the heart of the political battle over ballot access. “It must be asked,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “They need to hear what’s happening around the country, when you’ve got people waiting for hours and hours at polling places, when you have laws being passed that are not meant to make it easier to vote but make it harder to vote.” The same could be said about a string of other Georgia-centric issues, such as the battle this year over the state’s new abortion restrictions and an ongoing fight at the statehouse over Medicaid expansion. “We just passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, and Georgia is like the New Hollywood of the South,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “I hope that that is elevated because it has not gotten enough attention in the first four presidential debates.” Throughout the week, the candidates have tried to appeal to African American voters by rolling out platforms on ballot access and college affordability, and staging events at historically black colleges. A debate on Tyler Perry’s turf seems a good opportunity to sharpen their approaches. AJC Poll: Georgia voters on the candidates and issues Related: Voting struggles put spotlight on major elections in Georgia Related: Georgia anti-abortion law could drive discussion at Democratic debate “Most of the candidates are courting the black vote with events before and after the debate,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The question is, how will they court the black vote during the debate?” Will the debate continue a moderate moment?  The forces of moderation have claimed a string of victories in the runup to the debate. Centrist Democrats picked up major victories in off-year elections this month in Kentucky and Louisiana, despite President Donald Trump’s best efforts to defeat them. Recent polls show more mainstream candidates, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Joe Biden, gaining ground at the expense of their more liberal rivals. Another moderate, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, just joined the race, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is poised to run as a centrist. And recent polls in Georgia and other battleground states suggest most voters prefer a health care option that isn’t Medicare for All. But the challenge for the moderate candidates on Wednesday’s stage is to make sure the moment isn’t fleeting. Staked to a clear lead in The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll, Buttigieg is likely to come under fresh attacks from rivals who question his political experience or magnify his struggles with African American voters. Biden, too, faces a decision about whether to sharpen his attacks against Buttigieg, who threatens to slice off some of his support, or keep his focus on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is trailing close behind him in some recent national surveys. Is this a “last stand” for some struggling candidates?  The same question has been asked about every debate, but pressure is mounting as the first round of 2020 votes approaches and standards for qualifying for debates tighten up. Klobuchar and two other U.S. Senate colleagues — Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — are locked in the single digits in most polls and face a challenge to transcend viral moments and do something more significant that fundamentally boosts their chances. A half-dozen other candidates are below them in surveys, struggling to gain any sort of traction. Some Democrats have seen enough. “I sure hope the field is whittled down,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Biden supporter. “It’s an embarrassment of riches. We have so many talented people who are willing to serve. But as we get into caucus and primary season, hopefully your numbers will begin to go down.” Hicks, the strategist, put a finer point on it: “If they cannot make a move in this debate, there’s no reason to stay in the race.” Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.
  • A staunch Democratic stronghold for decades, southwest Atlanta will finally find itself in the national spotlight Wednesday night. As presidential hopefuls arrive in town ahead of a debate at Tyler Perry Studios, local activists and residents say it is an opportunity to put their neighborhood at the forefront of political discussion. Ten candidates will take the stage at the sparkling new $250 million studio complex on the grounds of Fort McPherson, the former U.S. Army base, closed since 2011. It’s the only studio to be owned by an African-American, and opened last month to much fanfare and a gala that drew Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Samuel L. Jackson. When it was chosen as the debate host site, Democratic Party of Georgia Chair Nikema Williams said the studio “represents the promise of Georgia’s future, by elevating economic opportunity and diverse voices.” READ | Atlanta Democratic debate: The major issues in Georgia MORE | Georgia anti-abortion law could drive discussion at Democratic debate The studio is seen by many as an economic boon for the area, which is overwhelmingly black and has a median annual income under $35,000, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The neighborhood immedately surrounding Fort McPherson is 93.8% black, and Atlanta City Council District 12, where Tyler Perry Studios is located, is 89% black, according to ARC data. Neighboring council districts 10 and 11, both on the southwest side, are both more than 90% black. Southwest Atlanta voters feel the choice of Tyler Perry Studios affirms their value to the Democratic Party, said Lewanna Tucker, chair of the Fulton County Democrats and a resident of the neighborhood. “This is the [political] community saying ‘We see you,’” Tucker said. “It’s not often that we feel seen in our community, and our vote maters. This is your base. These are the people that make sure Fulton County delivers. This is the thing that the community needs to see, that we see you and we hear you.” Precincts in southwest Atlanta voted overwhelmingly for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018, with her vote shares ranging from 95 to 99% in that area; voting precinct 12L, which contains the studio complex, had 236 votes for Abrams and two for now-Gov. Brian Kemp. In 2016, the same precinct recorded 251 votes for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and five for President Donald Trump. Some in southwest Atlanta have felt neglected by the Democratic Party in the past. While the area has reliably delivered high margins for the party, recent spotlights have been on newly competitive suburban congressional districts and counties including Cobb and Gwinnett that were long Republican bastions until flipping to Democrats in multiple recent statewide elections. “They’ve been taking southwest Atlanta for granted,” said Dominique Huff, a businessman and advocate for the neighborhood. “Southwest Atlanta has always shown up and shown out. It’s time now for the people who have always been with that party to say ‘Hey, its our time.’ It’s a chance for southwest Atlanta to say, ‘Hey, don’t forget about us.’” The debate could serve to remind people that strong turnout in base areas like southwest Atlanta along with the new battleground counties are what could help flip Georgia in 2020, said Rodney Littles, South Fulton captain for the Fulton County Democrats. The area is emblematic of what the Democratic Party’s platform should focus on, said state Rep. Park Cannon, a Democrat whose district includes the studio. Affordable housing, health care costs and public school resources are chief issues for the neighborhood’s residents, Cannon said. Huff hopes the venue will beget questions to candidates about how they propose to support communities like southwest Atlanta. “Usually, We have these debates in the nice areas where everything is great, everything is beautiful,” Huff said. “But you’re going to see [the neighborhood’s issues] going in and coming out. So, what are you going to do, Mr. or Mrs. President, to address these problems? Because they’re not unique to southwest Atlanta. We need more jobs. We need more economic opportunity.” Like Gwinnett County News on Facebook | Follow us on Twitter and InstagramStay up to the minute with breaking news on Channel 2 Action News This Morning
  • Georgia voters remain deeply divided over whether there should be a ban on assault weapons, according to a recent poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Almost 51% of registered voters polled say they support a ban on rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47. A little more than 45% oppose restrictions, and about 4% either didn’t know how they felt or refused to answer the question. The poll was conducted Oct. 30 to Nov. 8 by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. » Interactive: See poll results » Related: How — and why — we conducted this poll » Related: Trump faces tough re-election fight in Georgia » PDF: Complete poll crosstabs Retired preschool teacher Beverly Hales, a 68-year-old Canton resident, told the AJC that she supported restrictions on the weapons. “I think everybody probably needs a gun to defend their own home but not an assault weapon,” she said. Macon resident Andre Taylor, a 35-year-old electrician, was conflicted about a potential ban on assault weapons. Though he owns an AK-47, he said didn’t believe they needed to be readily available to the public. He said he’s only used the weapon at the gun range, but over the years his views have shifted. “It’s a form of protection, but at the same time I feel like where I’m at with my growth and my livelihood and my walk (with God) and my journey I don’t need it anymore,” Taylor said. “When guns get into the wrong hands, it just causes chaos and turmoil and pain. I feel like that type of weapon — think of the actual name of it: assault.” Feelings on a ban fell mostly along party lines.  About 77% of Democrats polled said they support banning assault weapons. A little more than 71% of Republicans said they opposed a ban. Those who identified as independent voters were split on the issue — with just over 47% in support and nearly 48% opposing a ban. Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.

News

  • The remains of six victims of a deadly volcano eruption in New Zealand have been recovered. Sixteen people were killed on White Island when a volcano there unexpectedly erupted Monday, The Associated Press reported. Eight military specialists recovered six of the eight victims believed to be on the island, and the bodies will be taken to Auckland for identification, CNN reported. Due to toxic gases still being released from the volcano, the team had to wear protective suits and breathing gear to be on the island, the AP reported. The search had to end as air supplies ran low, the New York Times reported. An additional recovery mission is planned to find a tour guide and boat captain who had taken tourists to the island. At least one of them is expected to be in the water, but the other person’s location is unknown, the AP reported. Forty-seven tourists, many from a Royal Caribbean cruise, and guides were on the island when the volcano exploded. Many of the people who survived were burned. Fifteen tourists not from Australia are in burn units across the country with 11 listed as very critical. Thirteen Australians who were part of the tour have all returned to their home country, the AP reported. Skin banks are sending tissues to hospitals to help treat the burns, as medical teams from Australia, Britain and the U.S. travel to New Zealand to help treat patients, the AP reported.
  • A Minnesota man was sentenced Wednesday to more than 24 years in prison in the death of his 13-day-old son. Michael Herkal, 33, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, nearly 16 months to the day after Apple Valley police responded to an Aug. 12, 2018, medical call for an infant not breathing, WCCO reported. The child died two days later, after doctors determined he had suffered a skull fracture and bleeding in his brain. Herkal was charged initially with felony assault and malicious punishment of a child, but three additional charges of murder were filed after authorities received the autopsy report, KARE11 reported. According to WCCO, Herkal initially told authorities his toddler pulled the newborn off the couch twice but later claimed the baby slipped from his hands and fell onto a coffee table during a diaper change. During his plea hearing, however, Herkal admitted he also shook the infant violently and slapped him, the TV station reported.
  • Major League Baseball announced substantial changes Thursday to its drug use and testing policy, multiple news outlets reported. In addition to removing marijuana from its “drugs of abuse” category – making it the first major US sports league to do so – the organization announced mandatory testing for the presence of opioids, cocaine, synthetic THC, LSD and fentanyl, ABC News reported. Per the policy revisions, players will still be tested for “natural cannabinoids” such as THC, CBD, and marijuana, but punishment for violations will now be treated similarly to those of the alcohol and violence policies, ABC News reported. 'Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct under the Parties’ Joint Treatment Program for Alcohol-Related and Off-Field Violent Conduct, which provides mandatory evaluation, voluntary treatment and the possibility of discipline by a Player’s Club or the Commissioner’s Office in response to certain conduct involving Natural Cannabinoids,” the league, in association with its players union, stated. According to NPR, the policy changes will take effect during 2020 spring training.  “The opioid epidemic in our country is an issue of significant concern to Major League Baseball,” MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem said in a prepared statement, adding, “It is our hope that this agreement - which is based on principles of prevention, treatment, awareness and education - will help protect the health and safety of our Players.” Read more here and here.
  • Seeking emergency mental health assistance could soon be as simple as dialing 988, federal regulators announced Thursday. The Federal Communications Commission formally began the process Thursday to designate 988 as a nationwide suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. “The three-digit number is really going to be a breakthrough in terms of reaching people in a crisis,” Dwight Holton, CEO of suicide prevention nonprofit Lines for Life, told USA Today. “No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency.' According to The Wall Street Journal, the new hotline is intended to simplify access to services available currently by dialing 1-800-273-TALK, the existing National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Once operational, dialing 988 would connect callers to the existing hotline and then route them to nearby crisis centers equipped to provide assistance. “We believe this historical and critical effort will turn the tide on reducing suicides and promote mental wellness in the United States,” said a statement from Kimberly Williams, chief executive of Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit that administers the lifeline, The Journal reported. Read more here and here.
  • An emergency landing by a single-engine plane snarled traffic Thursday night on Interstate 5 in San Diego, multiple news outlets reported. Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, told KNSD the Cessna 182 made a hard landing on the southbound lanes around 7:15 p.m. Within 30 minutes authorities had re-opened two southbound lanes, KFMB reported. Carlsbad Fire Division Chief Mike Lopez told KNSD a man and a woman were on board traveling from the San Gabriel Airport in Los Angeles to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. According to KFMB, no injuries were reported, and the plane did not strike any motorists. “They did a pretty good job landing this thing,” Lopez told KNSD, adding, “The skill of that pilot, he did a stellar job.”
  • A Fort Gibson man recently showed off his blacksmith skills by taking first place in a competition television show. Nic Overton, 23, earned the top spot on the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire,” which is centered around blacksmith work. Along with bragging rights, Overton won a $10,000 prize. Overton told KOKI he’s been fascinated with blacksmithing since he was a child and crafted his first knife out of a railroad spike. He managed to turn his hobby into a career. He owns his own business called Nix Knives.