Reading tea leaves: David Ralston, rural Georgia and the 2018 race for governor

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House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, speaks to the Atlanta Press Club on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

It’s time to read a few tea leaves that have swirled to the bottom of House Speaker David Ralston’s cup.

On Tuesday, the lawmaker from Blue Ridge explained his support for House Resolution 389 to a committee of his colleagues. The measure would create a tight rural caucus of 15 lawmakers assigned the task of figuring out how to make rural Georgia work again. From our AJC colleague Aaron Gould Sheinin:

“This fact is inescapable,” he said. “Rural Georgia has not seen the positive results of growth and faces challenges, very real challenges, to its future. We have talked about this for too long. It is time now to make a priority of rural economic development in Georgia.”

The next day, the leader of the state House addressed the Atlanta Press Club, where he was asked if he were interested in running for governor in 2018.

The two issues – the plight of rural Georgia and a run for statewide office – aren’t unrelated. Last November, we told you that while Donald Trump won the popular vote in Georgia, Hillary Clinton won 52 percent of the 28 counties that make up the greater metro Atlanta – better than incumbent President Barack Obama did four years earlier.

What saved Trump in Georgia is that he pulled 61 percent of the vote in the remaining 131 counties – two points better than Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012.

If Republicans are to remain in power, rural Georgia needs to be happy with their performance. Enthusiastic, even. Which helps explain Ralston’s observation that the next governor needs to be a transformative figure who has something to offer those who live outside the footprint of metro Atlanta.  Again from Sheinin:

“Over the coming months, Georgians are going to start thinking about, talking about, what they’re looking for in the next governor,” he said. “I think they’ll be looking for someone who has a vision, such as a Zell Miller with the HOPE scholarship or Nathan Deal with economic development and criminal justice reform.”

 

Or, Ralston said, “someone with the courage on some of these issues I talked about. At least that’s what I’m going to be looking for.”

The House speaker wouldn’t say whether he is that someone. And the dynamics of the state Capitol argue that Ralston wasn’t referring to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who must be considered the current GOP frontrunner in a 2018 race for governor.

But Ralston’s remarks can be given a slightly different interpretation when you consider that, earlier this week, the House speaker was visited by former Georgia congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County. Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Ralston, confirmed the visit this morning.

“The two did visit. They are old friends of 25 years,” McMichen said.

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We told you on Monday about the fact that, as the Senate Transportation Committee is deliberating over a House bill that could create the outline of a regional transit system in metro Atlanta, a Senate bill now in the House could pre-empt any debate over a wider role for passenger rail.

SR 228 would allow Georgia to negotiate a 50-year lease with CSX for the Western & Atlantic rail line that extends from Atlanta to Chattanooga. In the past, CSX has been reluctant to share its lines with passenger traffic.

Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report was at that same Atlanta Press Club gathering we mentioned above. While there, she ran into Craig Camuso, the regional vice president for CSX. From her account:

“What the [resolution] does is give the State Properties Commission the right to negotiate with CSX,” Camuso said. “The current lease says that we must review any commuter rail plans. There will have to be a negotiation of the lease itself. That can’t happen until the Legislature gives the authority.”

 

CSX current lease for a rail line that goes up to Cobb County runs out in 2019.

 

“It’s an important part of our freight network,” Camuso said.

***

In Washington, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee set a date for its confirmation hearing of  Alexander Acosta, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor.

We tell you this because Acosta’s nomination was announced three weeks ago. It’s been seven for agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue, the only other Cabinet secretary who has yet to be installed into office. His hearing date is still TBD.

As we told you last week, the hold-up appears to be with the FBI, which is conducting a routine (but extensive) background check. What we still don’t know is whether they have found any red flags.

Perdue’s administration aides and allies have insisted that nothing is wrong, but the delay has created some attention. Critics of Perdue have also stepped up their attacks.

The Environmental Working Group came out with a list from Perdue’s time as governor that they said shows the Republican “is mired in ethical lapses, self-dealing and back-room deals that raise troubling questions about his fitness to run the department.” Among other things, they cite a tax bill passed by the legislature that saved Perdue an estimated $100,000 in state taxes.

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Peter Aman’s campaign to become the mayor of Atlanta has  snapped up the former aide of rival Ceasar Mitchell, the president of the City Council.

T.J. Copeland resigned from Mitchell’s team a few weeks ago.  Aman was quick to trumpet the news of his re-employment. “TJ is an invaluable addition to our strong team,” said Aman. “We are building a winning organization and bringing in someone of his caliber shows our growing stature in this race.”

***

A divided Macon-Bibb County Commission passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass new protections for LGBT against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. It mirrored House Bill 488, which has failed to gain traction in the House.

Project Q reports the 5-4 vote comes ahead of a massive rally, march and candlelight vigil on Saturday. The event is dubbed the March on Macon.

 


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