Last week Georgia’s political establishment, Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, were on hand for the historic unveiling of an 8-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s daughter Bernice King, said “Today, we as the sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners are here to witness the unveiling of that statue. It is a glorious and grand day in the state of Georgia and in the United States of America.”
Also present was one-time state GOP chair and former state Sen. Chuck Clay, who adds that the placing of the statue, the first on the Capitol grounds of a non-elected official, “is about uniting… You constantly heard, ‘Why did it take so long?’ But late is better than never.”
The effort to honor King began in 2014 on Martin Luther King Day when Gov. Nathan Deal (R) spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had been the preacher. Deal promised that he would “find an appropriate way” to commemorate the civil rights leader at the state Capitol. The Republican-controlled legislature passed a resolution calling for a statue of King and Gov. Deal appointed state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D) as the state’s liaison to the King family. Smyre is an African American and has served in the House longer than any other member.
“I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Gov. Deal … ” says Smyre (D); “I’ve worked with him on a number of projects. In 2014, he was sort of ahead of the curve on this issue. The conversation began when we were leaving the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Over the last few years, he and I have worked together on this.”
So why did Deal, a Republican in the very Red state of Georgia, take the lead in erecting a statue honoring King, anathema to the segregationists who were once a majority here? It isn’t for political gain. Deal is finishing out his second term and cannot seek reelection. “It reflects a decency of self and soul,” says Clay. Another likely reason is that Georgia’s population is 60% white and 31% black. No governor can do a good job here ignoring the concerns of the minority population.
This is not the first time Deal has tackled a sensitive issue that held the potential for controversy. Several years ago, Deal quietly removed the statue of Tom Watson, a powerful populist leader in the state in the late 19th and early 20th Century. In his later years, Watson became a virulent racist and anti-Semite. Deal had the Watson statue moved from the Capitol grounds to a nearby park. “Nathan pulled that off without a ripple,” says Clay.
After it was pointed out to Deal that the Stone Mountain association board was all white, he said he would “certainly be open” to putting an African American on the board, which he promptly did, with the appointment of DeKalb County CEO and former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond to the board. “That’s a good move, especially because of the debate over the sculptures,” says Smyre. “It’s a move in the right direction.” Deal has said, however, that he opposes sandblasting the sculptures of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson from the face of the mountain, a position advocated by state Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Deal has taken other actions that help the poor and minorities. He pushed criminal justice reform to provide options other than incarceration for non-violent offenders. Smyre says that Deal has “gone above and beyond for the Morehouse Medical School” at the historically black university. When the school needed assistance, Deal helped it obtain an additional $35 million in state aid. He has, however, opposed expansion of Medicaid in Georgia, a decision very much opposed by black leaders in the state. Smyre acknowledges that the two have political differences, but adds, “The words civility and political differences should go hand in hand.” Would that the entire nation heeded that advice!
In general, while Deal is a social conservative on some issues, “He hasn’t really pushed a rightwing agenda,” says one observer. He is pro-life, but hasn’t made it a central concern of his administration. He has worked with the NRA on issues, but in 2016 vetoed “campus carry” that would have allowed guns on college campuses. This year, though, he signed into law a modified campus carry bill.
Deal also vetoed the “religious liberty” bill that would have allowed vendors to refuse to sell their services for weddings of same-sex couples. While this reflects a degree of departure from social conservatism, it also pleased the business community. Such a law has created financial problems in other states, where a number of national firms and organizations canceled plans to hold conventions or do business in the state.
In addition to moving effectively to build bonds between the races, Deal has a solid reputation as a traditional conservative. “He’s popular with the business community,” says Tom Baxter, a journalist and longtime observer of Peach State politics. “In terms of business, he couldn’t be any better. He’s held the line on taxes and spending.” Deal “has kept spending in line with inflation and population growth,” says another observer of Georgia politics; “Georgia has a Triple A bond rating which he has jealously guarded.”
Deal has also stressed economic development. He initiated the Georgia Defense Exchange (GDX) to help the state’s businesses apply for and fulfill defense contracts. He also supported tax incentives and infrastructure that has helped attract some $7 billion in television and film business to the state. And it’s not all “trickle down” economics: The state’s improving economy has resulted in a large decrease in the number of people receiving food stamps.
Finally, Deal has the support of the people of Georgia. In Morning Consult’s polling of the approval ratings of governors in all 50 states, Deal ranked number 11.