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Things change when honeymoon ends
Jones on Georgia

ATLANTA --- Gov. Nathan Deal can't say he didn't have a nice, long honeymoon.

The critics who had hounded Deal in last year's campaign about his finances, his ethics and his issue stances mostly held their peace for months after he was elected. Not that there weren't opportunities:

- Hardly an eyebrow rose when he asked a bunch of lobbyists to oversee his transition into office and help hire his staff.

- No one blasted him for faulty ice and snow removal on his very first days in office. Not a stone was aimed his way when the Department of Revenue's refunds were deposited and then removed from thousands of personal bank accounts.

- When he unveiled his budget recommendations that included drastic cuts to agencies across state government, no massive protests filled the Capitol lawn.

- His recipe for the popular HOPE Scholarship and pre-K program included benefit cuts, restricted eligibility and preschool personnel reductions, but opposition was limited to the minority Democrats in the Senate -- and House Democrats not only voted with him but also literally stood beside him at press conferences in support of it.

- The failure of the Legislature's biggest bill, tax reform, didn't reflect on him since it wasn't his initiative. He merely launched his own shortly afterward.

Lawmakers, advocate groups and lobbyists all saluted him after the legislative session for being open and straightforward. His hand-picked choice for chancellor of the University System of Georgia found nearly universal acclaim.

It looked like Deal had become a magician.

Then, in one week, the bubble burst.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution story reported that he had favored campaign contributors and shunned women and minorities when he appointed people to boards and commissions.

A report on WAGA-TV in Atlanta questioned the propriety of his campaign hiring a well-respected fundraising firm co-owned by his daughter-in-law, and the story expanded into a national one with video of a state trooper telling the station's reporter that Deal's staff ordered him barred from a press conference.

That press conference, by the way, was for Deal to sign the state's latest restrictions on illegal immigration, which prompted more national coverage, protests and threats of lawsuits and boycotts.

Hostility is expected in the Capitol, but Deal also encountered it in the unlikely setting of the state Republican convention in Macon.

His brief comments got a good reception as long as he was dishing out red meat to the party faithful about the perceived ills of the Obama administration. But, when he urged the delegates to support his candidate for party chairwoman, Tricia Pridemore, he received a chorus of what sounded like boos. They could have been saying the first name of incumbent Sue Everhart, who wound up the contention's choice.

Either way, Everhart's re-election showed the limits of his influence.

While he was overseas last week on a trade mission, his staff announced the list of appropriations and bills he had vetoed. On the list were two aimed at curbing illegal gambling authored by one of his floor leaders, Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta.

In previous administrations, political allies became personally offended if their bills got vetoed, leading to frayed relations with key legislators. It remains to be seen if Deal's vetoes create that kind of animosity because if Hill is ticked, he's smoldering quietly.

Another veto drew public condemnation from the self-described watchdog group Common Cause. The nixed measure, Senate Bill 163, would have banned anonymous campaign ads. The governor said the bill would have violated the recent Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Georgia's own top court handed out a defeat for school-choice supporters in striking down the 2008 charter-school law. While Deal wasn't connected with the law, it was a central philosophy of the conservative orthodox he represents.

It's just more evidence that Deal didn't usher in a period of unblemished magic for his followers.

Contrast Deal's good fortune to that of his fellow Hall County resident, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Deal's election seemed to forecast a period of unprecedented cooperation with a governor and lieutenant governor from the same county and a House speaker from just a few miles up the road, but an internal revolt in the Senate GOP Caucus stopped that.

Not only have Cagle and the Senate's leaders been engaged in a tug-of-war over power, but some Republican activists are siding against Cagle. Four GOP district conventions passed resolutions declaring that power Cagle had exercised in his first term belongs to the senators.

One activist, Dr. Bill Hudson of Atlanta, was at the state convention urging Cagle to submit to a polygraph over his denial of anonymous allegations he bargained with Democrats. Cagle's staff dismisses the controversy as manufactured.

Still, Cagle's headaches are Deal's pain in the neck if a valuable ally is hamstrung.

What became obvious during Deal's first legislative session as governor is his considerable political skills. Those skills will be important as he faces more hurdles and the challenge of a special legislative session on redistricting.

The nature of a honeymoon is that critics pull punches because they sense that the prevailing sentiment is against them. The end of a political honeymoon frees those critics.

Nothing's holding them back now.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has covered state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.)

Web posted on Thursday, May 26, 2011

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