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Gov. Brian Kemp: How to Stand up to Corporate Pressure

(AP Photo/Elijah Nouvelage)

“We lost the All-Star Game, but I think we won the battle because that fight has moved to other states now because we are on the right side of this issue, and we push back so hard.”

On June 8th, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp joined Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince to discuss which policies he has made a priority during his past two-and-a-half years in office. In Mr. Prince’s view, despite the national press’ frequent attention to Governor Kemp, much focus has rested on his 2018 election victory against Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, as well as the 2020 presidential election that took place during his tenure. In the process, the actual specifics of his time in office have arguably been obscured. As such, in this interview, Governor Kemp and Mr. Prince discuss the Governor’s recent efforts to keep critical race theory out of Georgia schools, the recent election law he signed, his sometimes contentious relationship with big business, and, finally, what he hopes to prioritize between now and the 2022 gubernatorial election. (Governor Kemp also joined Merion West for interviews in August of 2019 and in January of 2018, in the latter case while still a candidate for the office.)

Governor Kemp, good to speak with you again. I enjoyed meeting with you back in the summer of 2019, so happy to be chatting with you again. 

Good afternoon, Erich. Same here.

I have a working theory: There has been so much attention to the various elections that you’ve been involved in or have taken place during your tenure that there’s not been as much focus on what you’ve actually been working on as governor, so hopefully we can take a moment today to discuss some of the things you’ve actually focused on during your time in office.

To that point, I think it might be helpful to start with recent reports that the Georgia Board of Education is looking to keep critical race theory out of Georgia schools. This was presumably in response—at least partially—to the letter you wrote last month where you expressed your alarm regarding this “divisive and anti-American curriculum that is gaining favor in Washington, D.C. and in some states across the country.” Why is that such an important priority for you when it comes to education in Georgia? 

I was hearing from a lot of people, first of all, that were very concerned about an agenda being taught in our public schools vs. facts and reality. And it just got to where there was, quite honestly, a lot of outrage. We have a constitutionally-elected state school superintendent. Then, we have a board that I appoint, or the governor appoints—I’ve appointed some of the members; Governor Deal appointed a good many of them as well. They’re kind of the governing body in many ways on curriculum and other things. So that’s why I sent the letter to ask the state school board to act, and, in less than two weeks, they did. It was very apparent to me that they wanted to weigh in on this issue, too, because they were hearing about it as well. Georgia’s not a racist state, and I don’t believe we’re a racist country. And to have that ideology taught in our schools—there’s just no place for that here in the state of Georgia.

I guess not only that, but when we met back in 2019, you were talking about your educational priorities for the state. There’s also just an opportunity cost in addition to some of the more substantive concerns, where you’re spending all of your time talking about race and maybe you’re not learning math, English, and science.

Well, I think you can certainly make that argument. Education, in my opinion, needs to keep changing with the demands of the world that we’re living in, in K-12. [This is true] also in career academies; we have our technical college system and our other higher education institutions of learning, whether it be a research university or one of our other universities or colleges that we have in Georgia. I personally think there’s a lot better things people could be learning in school, whether it’s a foreign language, STEM subjects, the true history of our country. I think, by kids being in school and being in that environment, they are going to learn a lot about real world issues. They certainly have their parents, their local community, their places of worship, and other places that have a factor in all of that. Listen, I’ve experienced this with my own kids: people that have an agenda in the classroom, and there’s just no place for it.

You may have seen in the past day or so that former President Barack Obama gave a CNN interview where he was kind of very critical of Republicans, in his view, spending time on critical race theory, rather than, he said, the economy and a number of other things. But in the minds of a lot of conservatives, kids are being taught some pretty unhelpful messaging about the country, as you and Governor DeSantis in Florida and others have pointed out.

Well, it’s my understanding that President Biden is the one that’s pushing this with educational programs regarding this. I may be wrong on that issue.

Yes, I believe he is.

So maybe President Obama should tell President Biden he shouldn’t be spending time on an agenda-driven education and just teach the subjects that we need to. I don’t think conservatives and Republicans would be dealing with this issue or local school boards [otherwise]. (It’s not just happening at the state levels; it’s happening at the local level too.) Something’s happening out there which caused them to be in such an uproar about this issue.

So, critical race theory is one example, and I want to put it in a broader context. In the aftermath of November of 2020, a lot of conservative commentators were expressing their hope that various Republican-led states—especially states with a Republican trifecta, whether that’s New Hampshire, Texas, Georgia—would prioritize certain policies that they believed would be extra important now that a Democrat was going to be in the White House. One was critical race theory, which we just touched on, and another is certain election laws. And then, another issue that I think is generating a lot of interest is addressing some issues with Big Tech that Florida and Texas are taking on. How do you see some recent efforts in Georgia in the context of what’s going around around the country of conservative states taking matters into their own hands, so to speak?

People have a reason to be outraged. I think a good example on the big tech is [that] Facebook was banning the whole COVID-19 starting in the Wuhan lab as propaganda, and now we’re seeing that it was far from it. I remember when Dr. Redfield just very quietly mentioned that issue—that that’s what he believed—and he was ridiculed and made fun of. He wasn’t trying to push that agenda; he was just simply answering the question. Then, he followed that by saying, “The facts and the truth will bear whether I’m right or not on this issue.” So he didn’t have an agenda. People are sick of that kind of stuff. And you’ve seen the same thing with politicians being banned I think in a biased way. You got some Ayatollah somewhere that can be on Facebook or have a Twitter account, but then a former president can’t. So, I think there’s dialogue and discussion around that issue. Obviously, Congress is talking about that. I think you’ll see our legislature digging into that issue as well, and we’re looking at the policy side of it.

I’m glad you brought that up. So, is there an effort in Georgia to follow in the footsteps of maybe Florida and Texas, and consider drafting something in the legislature to address the big tech censorship issue?

I think that’s definitely being bantered around right now. We’re kind of in a different cycle than everybody else; our legislative session starts early and finishes very quick, so we won’t be back in our normal legislative body until the middle of January. So there’s plenty of time to dig into that issue, which I feel like is going on from what I’m hearing out there. And I know our policy team continues to follow what’s happening in other legislative bodies around the country, as well as [in] D.C., and what other governors are doing.

I think a lot of people were really surprised, not only with COVID, but with the inability to share The New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop shortly before the November election on Twitter.

There’s tons of examples. It’s just hard to argue that it’s not biased in a lot of cases.

So, I watched your remarks not long ago at the State House, and you’re no stranger to corporations and business interests condemning some of the bills you’ve signed. Well before the recent outcry with various companies opposing the new election law, you had faced criticism from the film industry—and others—for the heartbeat bill you signed. What advice do you have for other governors—or members of Congress—who are thinking about pursuing policies that are disfavored by a lot of these corporations? And what advice do you have for them when they’re thinking of making these tough signatures knowing some of the corporate outcry that will follow?

I would tell them to follow Joshua’s words. 1:9 “stay strong and courageous.” That’s really what we’ve done. I think there’s an activist movement in a lot of corporate boardrooms now, which is very sad. I’ve been a small business owner for 35 years. I’ve run my own business; I’m still having to pay bills and deal with tax insurance. I’ve never run a public corporation—or a private one, for that matter. (I guess I have my own private corporation, but [I mean] one that had a board.) I’ve been on some corporate boards before. This is a lot different now than it ever has been, and the Left has done a really good job of pressuring a lot of these corporations and boards. I think they’ve made a lot of decisions based on that pressure, but that is not where their customers are.

We saw it with Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, and Delta. They got themselves in the middle of a circular firing squad because they were being told one thing by a bunch of activists, and the truth was completely different. In politics, I learned a long time ago, you got to pick your battles. And this was a battle that I needed to fight on behalf of our general assembly. Every Republican voted for that bill. We were very involved in the drafting of the final version, negotiating with the House and the Senate to get a bill that makes it easy to vote, hard to cheat, and keeps secure, accessible, [and] fair elections in our state. And I just felt like it was totally on my shoulders to go out and use the bully pulpit to defend the bill but also just to tell people what the truth was because President Biden and Stacey Abrams and a lot of these other former corporate CEOs—or corporate CEOs with an agenda—were not being truthful. In fact, their own states where they reside—like Delaware, New York, and New Jersey—are more restrictive than Georgia is when it comes to voting access and accessibility.

In a lot of ways, we won that battle. We lost the All-Star Game, but I think we won the battle because that fight has moved to other states now because we are on the right side of this issue, and we push back so hard. I think that’s what other governors and policy-makers are going to have to do when they take a principled stand, and they have the truth on their side. They cannot worry about economic consequences or anything else: You’ve got to stand for the truth. I think when you do that, most of these corporations and the customers and citizens that you represent will respect that and know that you’re being truthful with them. Then, you have others like Stacey Abrams, who are profiting off of this fake lie that’s been out there about Georgia election laws when other minority businesses were being hurt in our state.

To your point about hitting back, there does seem to be some evidence that that works. I saw on May 20th, RealClearPolitics was reporting that Coca-Cola was “tempering its politics” amid an ad campaign targeting that company, American Airlines, and Nike, which drew attention to some of these corporations’ own questionable business practices. So, is that the name of the game—being aggressive and hitting back?

I think it is, especially when you have the truth on your side. Nobody likes a hypocrite in politics, and I think that’s exactly what you saw with Stacey Abrams when she was lying about the bill, pressuring Major League Baseball to move the game. And then, after the fact, she’s convincing USA Today to change words in her op-ed, changing her position on that, too. People need to know that she had a financial agenda because she’s making money off of all these corporations and these billionaires that are donating money to her causes. There are plenty of people calling Coca-Cola and Delta and other companies out for doing business in Cuba and China, where you don’t have human rights, and they’re talking about how bad this this bill is, when we actually expanded voting access. This felt like we were in the middle of Poltergeist or something.

To your point about Stacey Abrams, even in the past couple days, it seems as though you can’t open a video on YouTube without her being there saying “Republicans are trying to take away voting rights across the country.”

That’s their narrative. She said that after the 2018 election; she questioned the election. Nobody said anything about it to her this cycle when you had Republicans doing the same thing in a lot of different states, especially when we had black voter participation increasing. We had the largest increase of African American voter turnout in the country in 2018. Yet, she still said that we’re a bunch of racists and voter suppressors. They don’t care what the truth is; they just think that if you say it long enough, people will believe it, which is another reason that you have to really stand up and push back. I did that in a lot of untraditional media markets for a white Republican guy to go on, with Black radio and other podcasts with a predominantly African American audience. I answered every single question I got from any media market about the truth of the voting bill. I told people, “Somebody is lying to you here, and it’s not me.” I’ve answered every single question. They will not do an interview with you; they just tweet out their [stuff]. They don’t answer tough questions, and neither has the President.

And were folks in some of these black radio markets appreciative of you coming on and explaining how you saw it?

Yes. I did a interview with 94.1, which is a radio station in the Metro Atlanta market. Gosh, it was probably one of the best interviews I did. It was over 20 minutes long—very detailed like this—but all on the voting bill, and it was great.

In late April, Senator Ted Cruz wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal explaining that he would no longer be accepting contributions “from corporate political-action committees.” This was in response to the CEOs of Coca-Cola and Merck condemning the election law you signed. He wrote, “This is the point in the drama when Republicans usually shrug their shoulders, call these companies ‘job creators,’ and start to cut their taxes. Not this time.” And as you’ve mentioned before—and as I know from our previous conversations—you’re a small business guy rather than a corporate guy. How big is the GOPs potential break with big business, and could this be to the advantage of smaller businesses?

I definitely think it’s an advantage to smaller businesses; people want to shop where they’re welcome. Especially when you look at Coca-Cola’s business, you got the corporate company, but then you also have the bottlers, and there are a lot of hard working Georgians that don’t agree with the policy at the time of James Quincey. They were furious about Coke weighing in on this issue, and they gave corporate an earful. So those folks who actually agree with this election law—or don’t want to get in the middle of politics and just want to simply sell their product—they’re in no man’s land. I think that’s a double-edged sword.

I appreciate Senator Cruz—look, when you have an issue, like we have in our voting law, where you have Mitt Romney weighing in on behalf of our law and Ted Cruz, you know it is a unifying voice that’s out there. I think the push back on big corporations (and really their activist boards that are pressuring their CEOs) is a warranted thing. But, also, we got to be careful about hurting hard-working folks in our states that just happen to work for those corporations. If they were still doing it, it’d be one thing. But I think—with push back and that debate moving to other states—we’re trying to keep moving forward and still giving Major League Baseball hell [though]. That was really the decision that I think was the straw that broke the camel’s back because it was just so outrageous.

You have the Braves playing baseball every day in Georgia, and you have the Texas Rangers playing in Texas, and you have the Marlins and other other teams that are playing in states like Florida and [states] around the country that passed voter bills as well. Conservative owners are not boycotting liberal states that are doing some other kind of voting law that they don’t like. It’s just ridiculous that sports—especially Major League Baseball—got political on this one when it’s in the Constitution that the states decide what the election laws are. If the legislative bodies change in the states, they can go back and undo something that a Republican legislature has done; that’s how politics works.

It seems as though Georgia has recently been made ground zero in a lot of these debates, between your lifting the mask mandate, the election law, and any number of other things. It seems like Georgia is very often in the crosshairs.

There’s a lot of reasons for that, but it’s also because we’ve been very forward-thinking on all those things, including me being a true conservative and not wanting to have too much government “following the science and the data,” which is what everybody talks about until they disagree with your decision. I’ve tried to be very consistent.

Last question, Governor: I know you’ve prioritized a number of issues—some of which we talked about in detail when we met almost two years ago. These have included rural issues (including rural broadband), as well as looking at human trafficking and rising crime rates in the state. What is your main focus, if you had to pick one or two, in your remaining time before the election? I know you’re looking to get the heartbeat bill reinstated; I know you signed a bill about defunding the police, and there’s been increased crime rates in Atlanta.  

I think things that I can actually control. The heartbeat legal fight—there’s just not a lot I can control other than to keep the fight up. But the rural issues—a lot of those issues got put on the back burner [like] the Rural Strike Team during the pandemic. But we’ve hired the director for the Rural Strike Team; they are up and rolling. We’ve got great opportunities in rural Georgia. At the same time, we’re really pushing broadband. Since we passed Senate Bill 2 two years ago, we’ve done multiple announcements with our electric membership corporations around the state, their private sector partners, and local communities. This has affected 44 counties in our state. Couple of 100,000 people that will have access to high speed fiber—not just broadband—I’m talking about high speed fiber. Most of those will have this in two to three years. We’re going to be able to do more of that over the next 12 to 18 months with the federal stimulus money that we have. We’re working on that now. So we’re going to stay focused on those two issues: strengthening rural Georgia, just like we promised people we would do. Also, just continuing to make sure our economy remains strong coming out of COVID. I think my measured reopening, doing that first in the country, not wavering when there was a lot of heat on me…

You were taking some major fire. I remember there was an Atlantic story [in April of 2020] that everyone was talking about that was deeply critical of some of your policies, but I guess you stayed in course.

That it was “a death experiment.” We’ve fared very well. Our unemployment rate right now is the lowest among the top ten most populous states at 4.3%. WalletHub had a story yesterday that we have the number one business climate in the Southeast. So we’re gonna stay focused on those issues going forward. We broke ground yesterday on a receiving center for human trafficking victims, so we continue to push that out. We did adoption and foster care reform—again, the session really [has been] showing our value of life at all stages. [We’re] continuing to boost workforce development; that is our future for our young people. We’ve done a tremendous amount on education and healthcare, so we’ll stay focused on that. We’re working hard to get the Patient’s First Act implemented. That’s something that policy-wise has been through the legislative process, but we’re still working through that now with the Biden administration. We’re still very hopeful about that.

I appreciate your time, Governor Kemp. I think this has been a helpful way to clear through some of the headlines and focus on some of the specifics of your time in office.

Thanks, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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