Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp strikes populist tone in run for governor
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with The Times during an interview on Monday in Gainesville. After entering the race in late March, the Athens conservative launched an economic platform focused on recruiting and building small business. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is striking a populist tone in his 2018 run for governor, touting his record as a small business owner, prioritizing rural Georgia and adopting a “Georgians first” attitude to state spending and illegal immigrants.

The seven-year secretary of state sat down with The Times on Monday to discuss these issues and others involved in his campaign to be Georgia’s third Republican governor.

After entering the race in late March, the Athens conservative launched an economic platform focused on recruiting and building small business — the “next logical step” of sitting Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign to recruit big business and manufacturing to the state, according to Kemp.

The secretary of state, whose job includes overseeing Georgia business licenses, said about 95 percent of the licenses registered with the state involve corporations with fewer than 50 employees.

He thinks kitchen table issues will be the biggest facing the next governor: health care costs, public safety and jobs.

“I’ve been a small business owner for 30 years,” he said. “I’ve been working with working Georgians every day, and that includes today. I think that’s one of the values that I’ve had — I’ve never lost touch with what’s going on in the real world.”

A POPULIST MESSAGE

Within his campaign, that focus on the “real world” means rural Georgia, agriculture and manufacturing and a collection of policies aligned with the national GOP and President Donald Trump: slashing regulations, focusing spending outside the state’s largest cities and cracking down on sanctuary cities and illegal immigrants.

“I think people are very frustrated with it seeming like the government is always doing something for the special interests or those that are here illegally and not really helping our own citizens,” Kemp said. “When you think to our rural areas, we’ve got kids who can’t get on the internet to do their homework at night.”

Defunding sanctuary cities and campuses is among Kemp’s campaign pledges, but he would be only the latest governor to crack down on illegal immigration in Georgia. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a law in 2009 requiring cities to prove they’re complying with federal immigration law to receive state funding.

Kemp said his focus on the issue of illegal immigration is more connected to frustration among Georgia residents feeling economic pressure.

“People are just frustrated that any noncitizen can walk into health care facilities and not pay a single dime and get services, and then we have Georgians — working Georgians — that are out there that are not able to get good health care or it’s costing a fortune,” Kemp said, adding that the failures of the Affordable Care Act are up to Congress and Trump to fix.

But unlike Trump, don’t look for an infrastructure spending campaign from Kemp — especially in the Atlanta area.

“I think we’ve got to continue to be innovative — and also have those local communities buying in to what they’re doing,” Kemp said. “People in Atlanta clearly will pay for congestion relief, but I’m not so sure that people outside of Atlanta will.”

He noted that congestion is clearly a problem in metropolitan areas, but not in most areas of the state. In general, Kemp talked much more about encouraging private sector innovation than public cash for infrastructure.

“Our life is going to change very quickly with technology now,” Kemp said. “When you think about five years from now or even 10 years from now, when we’re really having self-driving cars or we have self-driving trucks, what’s that going to do to the volume of vehicles on our roads if you could have more trucks traveling at night versus during the day?

“What other kinds of innovation are we going to have? Everybody talks about expanding MARTA and high-speed rail, but there’s innovative things like the hyperloop out there that could make all those obsolete if they actually come forth and actually work.”

THE CHAINSAW

To encourage that innovation, the secretary of state wants to “take a chainsaw” to state government and its regulatory system.

Kemp’s platform includes a cap to state spending, refunds for taxpayers and the reduction of Georgia’s bureaucratic corps.

He pointed to Deal’s response to the collapse of a portion of Interstate 85 — an accelerated permitting and contracting process that will have the project finished ahead of schedule — wondering why it takes a disaster for the state to move that quickly.

“What can’t we do that every day?” Kemp said. “I mean, I know we can’t do it that fast every day, but trying to speed those processes up every day, where people spend less time dealing with the government and more time dealing with their own business.”

On regulations generally, Kemp said he’s a fan of Trump’s requirement that for every new regulation at the federal level, two existing regulations have to be cut.

“What I want to do is create an entity kind of like Gov. Perdue did with the Commission for a New Georgia,” Kemp said. “When I first went into the Senate, Sonny came in as governor. We didn’t know how many buildings the state owned; we didn’t know how many cars the state owned. He put this group of businesspeople together to go in and give ideas.”

The secretary of state said he wants a similar process to review and remove red tape in state government.

On two other state issues, water and education, Kemp aims to stay the course following Deal. He said he wants to continue to work on the state’s failing schools and expand school choice, but stopped short of endorsing a voucher system for Georgia.

Kemp also praised Deal’s handling of the water wars with Florida and Alabama, saying that he would be willing to negotiate — while not compromising on Georgia’s fair use of its drinking water — if the issue remains unresolved after his election.

HIS CHANCES

Kemp has run for state office four times, beginning with his 2002 victory over Democrat Doug Haines for Athens’ state Senate seat in District 46.

His second campaign was an unsuccessful bid to be Georgia’s agriculture secretary in 2006. In 2010, he put in a dominating run for secretary of state, winning both the primary and general election by 17 or more percentage points. He repeated the performance in 2014, when he beat Democrat Doreen Carter by 15 points.

But now Kemp is going for the state’s highest office, and he’s up against three-term Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who’s put together his campaign headquarters, a crew of volunteers and is fresh from his campaign launch. There’s a year left before the 2018 Republican primary, but for now Kemp is behind on building his broader campaign structure.

Critical positions have already been filled, excluding a campaign manager. He’s tapped Ryan Mahoney, former spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party, to be his campaign spokesman. Mahoney, who was involved in the election campaigns of both Sen. Johnny Isakson and Gov. Nathan Deal, said the campaign has waited to set up offices while Kemp stays on the road gaining followers.

“For all intents and purposes — the campaign headquarters right now is Brian’s green Suburban. He is traveling to every corner of the state to earn support and establish grassroots leaders,” Mahoney told The Times. “At the appropriate time, we will open a permanent HQ in Metro Atlanta, Athens and South Georgia.”

Mahoney also said the campaign is considering a Gainesville office.

Kemp’s campaign chairman is Harold Reynolds, a resident of Greensboro and the CEO of BankSouth.

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