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George on Georgia – 2022: The Year of Fire

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George on Georgia – 2022: The Year of Fire

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

Remember the nonstop ads last year? The continuous social media campaign? Sidewalk corner junction boxes painted with get-out-the-vote murals? Gigantic four-page political brochures in the mail? Canvassing jobs starting at $20 an hour?

Welcome to 2022.

Georgia will again reoccupy the center of the political universe next year because this is where the streams cross. Different, massive political conflicts will converge in Georgia next year and ripple out into the rest of America. At the top of the list: Donald Trump is probably going to be indicted in Fulton County next year.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is contemplating a call for a special grand jury to determine the charges against the former president for his furtive phone call to Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger, and potentially against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for a similar call.

“What I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state,” he told Raffensperger in a call taped by a member of Raffensperger’s staff. Trump then threatened the secretary of state with a criminal investigation for allowing the election to stand.

“You know, that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you,” Trump said.

Again, for the folks in the back who scream election fraud: It is both a state and federal crime to attempt to bribe or coerce an elections official into changing an election result. That includes the former president.

A special grand jury allows Willis to call witnesses who are not cooperating with her probe to testify. That brings the circus to town, with Trump’s inner circle dodging subpoenas and obstructing justice just like they are with the January 6 commission in Congress.

It is entirely possible for the Georgia legislature to try to take action against Willis, somehow, by limiting the scope of a district attorney’s powers to investigate election fraud and coercion cases. We will see.

David Ralston, Georgia’s house speaker, appears to be the adult in the room, the Daria Morgendorffer of Georgia politics, the only one who seems to have his act together.

Ralston intends to offer legislation to overhaul mental health laws this year. I’ve seen a draft of the bill: it addresses most of the complaints issued by behavioral health advocates over the years, reflecting recommendations made by the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission. The bill aligns Georgia’s insurance regulations with federal law, provides a mechanism for analyzing data, and changes the standards for involuntary commitment to allow police officers and medical personnel to take someone into a temporary hold without necessarily charging them with a crime or requiring a risk of “imminent” danger if the threat to life or health is nonetheless obvious.

The legislature is also likely to push resources toward reducing the crime spike that has risen statewide – though most pronouncedly in Atlanta. Ralston suggested in October that about $22 million more should flow toward the GBI crime lab to speed up evidence processing, an 8 percent budget increase. The state still has a backlog of about 33,000 pieces of evidence, which has been growing over the last few months despite scrutiny.

Ralston wants to give bonuses to state prosecutors and to increase state funding for accountability courts. Both ideas make more sense than one expects from government these days.

Before we get excited about bipartisan common-sense legislation, keep in mind that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade next year.

Georgia’s six-week abortion ban triggers with the fall of Roe. Given the threat of a Stacey Abrams victory, Republicans staring at the end of total control may begin to move legislation in 2022 to go farther than that, just in case.

The fear of gubernatorial vetoes in the future will push the legislature to accelerate many things that would normally get a full vetting. Consider the Buckhead cityhood question. Normally, we would expect that process to drag out over a period of years, as it did with Sandy Springs and Brookhaven and Tucker. The disincorporation of a fifth of the largest city in Atlanta deserves deep scrutiny.

Instead, supporters will try to ram the bill through quickly next year. A perfunctory hearing was held this year, allowing the bill to be considered in 2022. If a bill to allow a referendum on Buckhead doesn’t pass this year, it may never pass because a Governor Abrams would veto it, or so the thinking goes. There’s no guarantee that they’ll get a second shot at it.

Now, extend that thinking to abortion rights. Gun rights. “Critical race theory.” More.

We can measure the anxiety of Republicans losing power by the kind of legislation we see move forward this year. We may see a year of fire, where legislators burn the mechanisms of governance to the ground, the better to hold Democrats responsible for rebuilding them.

Meanwhile, control of the U.S. Senate depends in part on Rev. Raphael Warnock holding his seat in a bad political environment for Democrats. Of the 33 seats up for election next year, six are rated as tossups. Three are held by each party. Georgia is considered the most vulnerable to a flip, and it only takes one net loss to give up control.

More than $200 million was spent on the U.S. Senate elections that concluded on Jan. 5 this year – more than any other election cycle in any state in American history. That intensity will return, with Warnock likely facing Herschel Walker for the job. Walker is an absurdity, but it may not matter if even a small portion of the Democratic voter base turns away in an off-year election.

Of course, Republicans may shoot themselves in the foot first.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced this week that he will challenge Brian Kemp in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Because … why not? Seriously, Perdue has eight figures in the bank and probably made more money this year investing than he might spend on a gubernatorial campaign. It beats golf.

Perdue blames Kemp (in public) for his election loss, instead of how he served as a caricature of a mean-spirited rich guy while in office. Six years, zero town halls. He actively avoided interacting with constituents unless they were writing a check. Perdue snatched a phone from a college kid at a Georgia Tech football game, and that image is who he is to me, probably forever. Perdue traded stock after learning about the scope of the pandemic. The media has largely ignored what came of those trades since he lost his seat, but one has to wonder if Perdue will chicken out in debates again against Stacey Abrams, like he did with Jon Ossoff.

Surely, though, none of these character deficiencies were worth 55,232 votes on about 4.5 million cast. Of course not. It was all Kemp.

Still, Kemp is fighting for his political life, under conditions he helped create. Kemp has done little to arrest the far-right drift of the Republican Party, the descent into conspiracy and unthinking denial of evidence, politics as an exercise in tribal loyalty. Kemp and Perdue will tear each other apart in the primaries. Both burned the mechanisms for reconciliation on Trump’s altar last year.

Still, Perdue has Trump’s endorsement, which has to give Vernon Jones a sad. All of that butt kissing. All of those campaign signs, printed double-size and wired to fences on abandoned property. Jones had to figure he could carry the grift through March, at least. Now all he has left is a role as Mike Lindell’s pillow pitchman.

As long as Stacey Abrams doesn’t treat the election like a coronation and fights the way she did in 2018 and 2020, Republicans may deliver the state to her simply by being Republicans.

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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