U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal announced Monday that he will leave Congress to concentrate on his bid to be Georgia’s next governor.
“I firmly believe that now is the season for me to devote my full energies to the campaign for governor,” Deal said during an announcement at the Gainesville Civic Center. “I believe the people of my district, like all Georgians, know that this is a time that demands leadership. These are critical days for Georgia and my experience at the local, state and national level have uniquely prepared me to lead Georgia as we lead the nation out of the recession.”
His resignation is effective as of Monday, and brings to a close an 18-year career in Washington. It also likely quashes an investigation into an ethics complaint filed against him in August.
Deal said he wants to devote this time to the governor’s race because Georgia needs a strong, experienced leader for the job. Deal, of Gainesville, is one of several Republicans seeking the governor’s office.
“I’m leaving Congress because I’ve had a front-row seat to the damage that inexperience in the executive branch of the federal government has done to our nation,” he said. “... This is not a time for untested leadership in the governor’s office. The economic future of our state is in peril. I am committed and ready to serve this great state.”
Deal is not the only candidate to resign a current seat to run full time for governor. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel resigned from her post in December; Eric Johnson stepped down from the state Senate.
The day Handel resigned, Harris Blackwood, a spokesman for Deal’s campaign, issued a statement that Deal had a clear record of completing his terms.
“There is much work to be done, specifically, the fight against President (Barack) Obama’s health care plan that will destroy Georgia’s health care delivery system,” Blackwood said. “The decision to remain in office or resign is a personal one. Nathan Deal is committed to his decision and has proven he can handle his congressional and campaign duties.”
When asked about the change of heart Monday, Blackwood said Deal “just realized this is the thing he has to do.”
A spokesman for John Oxendine, one of Deal’s Republican opponents in the gubernatorial campaign, said he hoped the outgoing congressman was not trying to avoid a congressional investigation into his actions.
In August, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint against Deal with the Office of Congressional Ethics, claiming Deal had used his congressional position to preserve a state-operated inspection program for salvaged vehicles that benefited him financially.
The group based its complaint on media reports that implied Deal pulled strings with help from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain, to save the program that earned Deal about $150,000 a year, according to reports filed with the U.S. House of Representatives.
Deal and business partner Ken Cronan ended their business with the state two months after the reports surfaced, saying that a new, privatized system initiated by the commissioner of the Department of Revenue, Bart Graham, would not meet the safety threshold of the state-operated inspection program that their company, Gainesville Salvage Disposal, participated in for 20 years.
Deal’s resignation likely ends the investigation into the matter, a fact that Deal said Monday he had no control over, but one his Republican opponents used as ammunition. Democratic gubernatorial candidates who spoke to The Times Monday and state Rep. Austin Scott, who is another Republican candidate for governor, said Deal’s announcement had no bearing on their own campaigns.
“It is regrettable that Nathan Deal has left Georgia without a voice in Washington during the vital health care debate,” said Tim Echols, a spokesman for Oxendine. “We are hopeful that this isn’t an attempt to circumvent an investigation into the state-funded program that benefited his auto salvage business.”
Deal said allegations that his resignation was an effort to avoid the investigation were “absolutely not true.”
“I am resigning simply because I know there is work to be done, and the leadership of this state hangs in the balance,” Deal said.
Another GOP gubernatorial candidate, Ray McBerry, said he hoped the state of Georgia would continue the ethics probe that the Office of Congressional Ethics could not.
“It’s in the best interest for all Georgians,” said McBerry of McDonough.
Others were concerned that Deal’s resignation would leave Georgia without important representation in Washington. Until Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sets a date for an election that will fill the vacant seat left by Deal, it is unknown how long the seat will stay that way. The vacant seat could impact the current health care debate in Washington.
“Hopefully the citizens of the 9th District will be able to elect a replacement before the upcoming votes on health care reform,” said Ben Fry, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate, Eric Johnson. “Passage would be a disaster for our country and it is troubling that Congressman Deal’s abrupt resignation might make it easier for a government takeover of health care to become law.”
Deal’s decision to run for governor has already ensured that, win or lose, he would be leaving Washington at the end of his current term. A large number of candidates have already lined up to try to replace him.
The lone Democrat in the race for Deal’s congressional seat, Mike Freeman, said he felt Deal should have resigned a long time ago. Freeman, of Gainesville, said he plans to also seek Deal’s seat in the special election to complete Deal’s term.
“I have always believed that when someone stands for an office, they ought to be able to give up the office you’re in,” said Freeman. “You can’t do both.”
But Lee Hawkins, one of the men who has announced plans to seek Deal’s seat, praised the Gainesville Republican’s announcement.
“Nathan Deal has led on many issues including raising the issue of preventing illegal immigration and finding market-oriented solutions to health care,” said Hawkins. “He cares about Georgians.”
Deal is the second Republican congressman from Georgia to announce he is leaving Congress. Rep. John Linder, a Gwinnett County Republican, said Saturday he will retire at the end of his term.
Staff writer Melissa Weinman contributed to this report.