After two terms as Georgia governor, Nathan Deal said he doesn’t forget where he came from.
“Gainesville has been the heart and soul of my entire political career,” he said in an interview with The Times on Dec. 19.
Deal spent most of his adult life in Gainesville, and he said support from his hometown was influential in being elected first to the state Senate, then the U.S. House of Representatives and finally as governor.
Hall County and Northeast Georgia saw returns during his administration, which began in 2011. Deal said he is proud of economic development, particularly in Hall — more than 7,000 private sector jobs have been added during his administration, he said, and he praised employers like Kubota and Kings Hawaiian for getting unemployment down to 2.6 percent in Gainesville.
He is excited about new developments in the area, too, like Fox, a ride dynamics products company that is relocating its headquarters from California to Gainesville and is expected to create 800 jobs.
Bringing new employers to Georgia was a priority of his administration, a task he said has kept the state’s economic development department busy.
“They work every day, all around the globe … parts of the country and the world where you would have never expected companies to relocate to Georgia,” Deal said.
Those companies will be served by an inland port off of Ga. 365, announced by Deal earlier in December, that will be able to handle up to 150,000 containers a year. Construction on the port, which will use Norfolk Southern rail lines and connect to the Savannah port, is expected to begin in August 2019.
“It’s going to have a very positive effect on our entire region. Because it does provide a lower cost of transporting (manufacturers’) product, it is going to be a magnet for companies that want to locate and I think we will see the effects of that spill over even into adjoining counties,” Deal said.
Another project in that area of Hall that Deal’s administration helped bring home is the new Lanier Technical College campus, which Deal said is the capstone of workplace development efforts focused on skilled trades and the state’s technical college system.
“That campus is going to double the capacity of the current Lanier campus. It’s going to increase it to 5,000 students,” Deal said. “The variety of training skills that will be imparted will be greatly expanded as a result of the larger space that they will be operating in.”
The new 95-acre campus off of Ga. 365 is the state’s first completely new campus for a technical college. Deal himself is honored there, with the Gov. Nathan Deal Economic Development Center bearing his name.
While Hall has reaped the rewards of having a governor and lieutenant governor call the county home, the county has also served as a model for statewide criminal justice reform. Accountability courts, including drug, DUI, family and mental health courts, that started in the Hall County courtrooms of Judge Jason Deal, the governor’s son, and Judge John Girardeau, have helped keep recidivism down and divert nonviolent offenders from a crowded prison system, Deal said.
“That’s what prison should be for — those who are violent and create a danger to society. We are reclaiming lives,” Deal said.
The state’s prison population has been reduced from 56,000 to 52,000 despite population growth that projected Georgia would need two new prisons, Deal said. Other efforts like the expansion of GED programs and a new charter school housed within the prison system have helped inmates prepare for life after they leave, with the goal of keeping them from coming back, Deal said.
“If you take someone who has no education and in many cases no marketable skills, you lock them up 10, 15, 20 years and you turn them loose, and they still don’t have a high school education and still don’t have a marketable skill, then you expect them not to come back? You’re deceiving yourself,” Deal said.
Deal said that while he is proud of the progress made with criminal justice reform, he hopes it is an issue that the administration of Brian Kemp, the governor-elect, continues to make a focus.
“What I hope will be the case is that the programs we’ve started will continue to grow, that their outreach will expand, because many of these are still in the very early stages,” he said.
As Deal prepares to leave office in January, he said he and his wife, Gainesville native and former educator Sandra Deal, will move to Habersham County and settle down in a home along the Chattahoochee River.
“It will be nice to not have an absolute busy schedule with everything and having to keep appointments, but I’ll miss some of it,” Deal said. “I really will. I’ll miss the people.”
Reflecting on his political career, Deal said he was thankful for those who supported him, starting when he and Sandra moved into an apartment in the Brenau University area after Deal left the U.S. Army. He took a job with the late Bob Andrews’ law firm.
Deal was quickly recruited to join the Gainesville Jaycees, who invited him to compete in a public speaking competition on behalf of the group. After winning a national speaking award, he was able to meet other Jaycees groups around the state, getting to know the people who would one day vote for him. He also met Gene Bishop, a state Jaycees leader who hired him as legal counsel.
Deal also was assistant district attorney, covering Hall, Dawson, Lumpkin and White counties, a job he said gave him the opportunity to meet jurors and become further ingrained in the community that would later be influential in getting him elected.
In 1980, he was elected to the state Senate. Philip Wilheit Sr., his longtime friend, was his campaign treasurer and has continued in that role for all of Deal’s other campaigns.
Then, Deal was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent District 9. He served nine terms in Congress and stepped down when he decided to run for governor, a position he won in 2010 with about 80 percent of the vote in Hall.
Hall County has occupied the top two state positions for several years, with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, also from Gainesville, serving in office since 2006. State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, leads the State Senate as President Pro Tempore. Miller will be keeping that position, but with Deal and Cagle’s terms coming to an end, the county loses some of its hold on state politics.
Deal isn’t worried, though.
“Even though we don’t have a governor or lieutenant governor from Hall County, Butch Miller is going to play a very important role as President Pro Tem of the Senate,” he said. “We have a very good close neighbor, and that is David Ralston, who’s from Blue Ridge and the Speaker of the House. … We have good friends in high places.”
Deal said he thinks the community in Hall is uniquely supportive, paving the way for his political career and helping others get elected too, he said.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are private citizens but who are willing to support good candidates. I know I have benefited from that,” Deal said. “…They got me started, and they have stayed with me and supported me in all my political endeavors, and they’ve done the same thing for others.”