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Deal takes reins with firm grasp

ATLANTA --- As first days in office go, Gov. Nathan Deal can certainly say his were unusual.

A winter storm bringing 4 inches of snow followed by sleet that sealed north Georgia roads not only put a white tint to his inauguration but also thrust him into action. Even before he became governor, he was making decisions on the fly, including his conclusion that an outdoor inauguration would be impractical.

Not only did he move his ceremony inside, he also canceled the gala to keep guests off the road and out of harm.

Moments after taking the oath of office, he signed an executive order continuing the state of weather emergency already in effect.

"I did not intend for that to be my first official act," he joked last week.

It's not that he planned for a major, symbolic "first official act," notes his communications director, Brian Robinson. He merely pushed back to second his order limiting the amount of gifts or meals executive-branch employees can accept, and he then made some executive appointments.

If the storm forced him to react, he strove to demonstrate leadership at the same time. He held frequent meetings with the heads of his transportation, law-enforcement, military and emergency-response agencies -- making sure the press photographed him in shirtsleeves at the conference table.

While he praised the long hours of state transportation workers, he recognized the frustration of Atlanta motorists. He announced Jan. 20 that he had determined a command structure was needed to ensure one person from the various agencies had overall charge.

"We have learned some things from this last ice storm," he said.

He revealed another aspect of his management style by explaining that he would not be the one dithering over every action by state agencies.

"I'm not going to be on the front lines to micromanage," he said.

So, he dusted off an executive order drafted when Georgia played host to the G-8 Summit, creating a chain of command for dealing with special circumstances that puts the head of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency over all.

The weather wasn't the only crisis plunged into his lap. Atlanta public schools contributed two.

An ongoing state investigation had uncovered evidence of cheating by teachers and administrators on standardized tests taken by students. Days after taking office, Deal demanded the investigation wrap up quickly.

Before the echo of those words stopped reverberating, the school board learned it was on probation and at risk of losing accreditation at all its high schools.

Deal leaped into the fray by calling a closed-door meeting with the Atlanta legislative delegation and appointing Rep. Stacey Abrams to be his liaison to the board to try to unscramble the problem. It could be argued that he was giving her a thankless task, but it showed he was trying to be proactive.

At the same time, he showed he has a bipartisan side. Of course, it wouldn't be easy to find a Republican legislator from Atlanta, but he didn't have to select Abrams, the House Democratic leader. He could have picked a local business executive with GOP leanings.

Ironically, around the same time, a doctored photo of Deal depicted as Adolf Hitler appeared in the pages of the Hispanic publication El Nuevo Georgia. It accompanied an article critical of his stance against illegal immigration, but his response to it was more measured than some governors have been in reaction to milder insults.

His early days haven't only been consumed with putting out fires. He earned good marks from legislators and reporters for delivering a pair of short, straightforward speeches.

His inaugural address avoided the rhetorical excesses common to his predecessors, and his State of the State Address not only presented the unvarnished details of his budget cuts but also included a kind of daring departure from conservative dogma regarding drug sentencing.

For generations, conservatives have argued "lock 'em up and throw away the key" as the best deterrent and also the guarantee against repeat offenses. Deal said that approach costs too much, and instead called for alternative sentencing through a network of courts specializing in substance abuse and mental health.

His budget recommendations also force reforms in the allocation of the HOPE Scholarship. But he didn't prescribe the parameters of the reform, choosing instead to partner with the General Assembly on its details.

This honeymoon won't last forever, of course. But his start could have been rockier, and it has presented hints of the management style of a man who has never run a large organization.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. Reach him at walter., (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter at MorrisNews.)

Web posted on Thursday, January 27, 2011

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