At Issue: Deal Delivered

Who is the most popular political figure in Georgia? It’s not even close.

A September poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the University of Georgia yielded interesting numbers. At that time, Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams were both in the low 40 percent range of approval and popularity. President Donald Trump? He came in at 42 percent, along strictly partisan lines.

But the incumbent governor of Georgia, who is limited from seeking another term, stood at 63 percent approval. Only one in five respondents disapproved of his performance in office. What is striking is that these numbers cut across party lines, with about half of Democrats and 64 percent of Independents approving of Gov. Nathan Deal.

If we traveled back to the summer of 2010, when he was running for governor, and reported these numbers to Georgians, there would have been shock, disbelief and more than a few folks calling us liars, particularly during the bitter Republican primary run-off between Deal and the frontrunner in that race, Karen Handel.

Deal’s candidacy was met by many with unease. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2010, amassing a conservative record supporting business, low taxes and a muscular foreign policy. In his last term in D.C., he was dogged by an ethics investigation and accusations of financial improprieties and violating House rules.

After announcing his candidacy for governor early in 2010, he resigned from Congress. It was seen by some as a move to avoid further scrutiny. Once he was no longer a member of Congress, the ethics investigation was dropped.

One political pundit commented that Deal left Washington, D.C. “just ahead of the posse.” But Deal maintained that he resigned from Congress so he could focus his efforts on his campaign for governor. And his supporters were quick to note that there were never any official charges or findings against him by congressional investigators.

To Gov. Deal, and his family and supporters, that must seem like a very long time ago. Today, he is one of the most popular, and arguably successful, governors in America. So what happened? Mainly, it’s the usual explanation. The economy has done very well during his tenure.

According to the Department of Labor, more than 650,000 private-sector jobs have been created in the state in the last seven years. Deal focused intently on workforce development and economic incentives to out-of-state companies willing to relocate to Georgia or expand current operations. Deal’s support for the movie and television industry has also played a significant role in Georgia’s economic success, and helped spur job growth and outside investment. All of this has led in recent years to Georgia being named the No. 1 state to do business by several national publications.

He has focused on transportation and infrastructure issues, which are crucial to any long-term economic success. Deal has played a key role in efforts to deepen the Port of Savannah, which will position the state to be a leading commercial hub for decades. He and the state Department of Transportation have invested in new highway projects and continue to work with the legislature on initiatives to increase rail transport in Metro Atlanta.

One area of drastic improvement under Gov. Deal has been criminal-justice reform. His administration has worked with Republicans and Democrats to implement a series of reforms, including accountability courts, which focus on sentencing options for nonviolent offenders; juvenile justice reforms; and re-entry programs for rehabilitated offenders.

Since 2012, prison sentences imposed on African-American offenders have dropped by 19 percent, and felony commitments and placements of juveniles have dropped considerably in participating counties. Gov. Deal’s success in this area has attracted national attention and bipartisan praise.

Without question, another reason for the bipartisan support for Nathan Deal is his veto in 2017 of the unpopular Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. Seen by many, including Georgia’s business community, as unnecessary and potentially discriminatory, the governor’s veto went a long way toward building trust across the partisan divide in Georgia.

In January, Nathan Deal rides into the political sunset. He must be smiling and feeling pretty good about his role in Georgia’s success – an outcome virtually no one would have predicted seven or eight years ago. It’s a case study in surpassing expectations.

Categories: At Issue