The afternoon of Saturday, June 9, was supposed to be a day of celebration for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. He attended a Hall County Republican Party forum, then headed to an event at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and made his way to the grand opening of his Northeast Georgia campaign headquarters on Green Street in Gainesville.
Yet looming over him was fallout from a secret audio recording of a private conversation between Cagle and Clay Tippins, a former Republican primary rival who finished fourth in the May 22 gubernatorial primary. The audio was released by Tippins to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-Channel 2 and has since been transcribed.
In the recording, Cagle admitted to pushing a bill, HB217, which raised the cap on tax credit for private school scholarships to $100 million from $58 million, in order to hurt state Sen. Hunter Hill’s chances in the primary. Hill finished third behind Cagle and runner-up Brian Kemp.
“Obviously, it was a private conversation that was supposed to be confidential,” Cagle said Saturday in an interview with The Times. “It doesn’t change the fact that I certainly said what I said, but it was in the context of a political discussion by which he wanted to have.”
By pushing the bill, which Cagle said in the audio was “bad policy,” the Walton Family Foundation, an education policy super PAC “that was getting ready to put $3 million behind Hunter Hill,” backed out.
Cagle was recorded saying the Walton Foundation backing out gave Hill “nothing to spend down the finish line,” effectively knocking him out of the running for governor.
“Politics is sometimes ... it has to be created in a way that builds consensus,” Cagle said during the grand opening of his Gainesville headquarters. “And when you pull back the curtain, that’s not always a pretty process. But in the end, it is about doing the greater good. And I think people that know me, people who have seen my record, recognize that I am a person who wants to advance the state of Georgia and make life better for others. And I’ll be true to that.”
Since the recording, Cagle has changed his stance on HB217. In the recording he said he could name “a thousand different ways” the bill was bad policy, which he admits was an exaggeration. Saturday, he said it was the opposite.
“It’s good public policy and that is indicative of the overwhelming support in both the Senate and the House, among the Republican party and the fact that the governor signed it,” Cagle said. “So there’s no question that this was a strong public policy.”
While Cagle said he would have liked to see some aspects of the bill changed, such as more resources going to students struggling financially and more restrictions on where scholarships go, Cagle said “the good certainly outweighed the bad.”
“Listen, there’s politics in the House, there’s politics in the Senate, there’s politics in the governor’s office and there’s politics externally,” Cagle said. “And you know, was the bill perfect? No. But did it advance the cause in terms of improving public education and more educational options? Absolutely.”
Cagle said he wants voters to consider his record, to look at what he’s done for public education and educational choice over the years. He said he’s the only candidate who has “advanced a significant initiative around education” through the college and career network and charter system he helped create.
“My record speaks for itself and I stand behind what that record looks like,” Cagle said. “The record is a record that is pro-education. And it has always been and will continue to be my top priority.”
Supporters at Cagle’s grand opening didn’t seem fazed by the controversy. Shelia Jones, a Gainesville resident, said she didn’t think the $3 million that allegedly was pledged to Hill would have helped him finish any higher. She said what Cagle did was “probably not the smartest thing in the world he’s ever done, and it’s probably not the dumbest, either.”
And in the end, she said Tippins recording a private conversation is “a lot worse” than what Cagle did.
“I didn’t vote for Casey to be my pastor, I voted for him to be the leader of the state, and that doesn’t require him to be a pastor,” Jones said. “I would like for him to have a good set of moral values, which I do think Casey does or I wouldn’t have voted for him, but I don’t expect him to be the pastor. I’m not looking to him for that.”
Debbie Morrin, a Hall County resident, said she only cares about finding the right person for the job, and still thinks that person is Cagle.
“I’ve admired Casey Cagle for years,” Morrin said. “He’s got the knowledge and experience to do the job. I wouldn’t vote for anybody else.”
On whether or not Cagle has spoken to Tippins since the recording was released or whether he plans to, Cagle said:
“No, no, no, no. No, I don’t know that that’s going to be very productive.”