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Moving the All-Star game punished the wrong Georgia

President Biden and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred apparently never got the memo about the Two Georgias.

That’s about the only conclusion to be drawn from their reaction to the enactment of Georgia Senate Bill 202, aka “The Election Integrity Act of 2021.” When Biden publicly urged the MLB to strip Atlanta of this year’s MLB All-Star game, he was basically calling in friendly fire on his own party’s home turf in perhaps the most politically important state in the nation right now.

More specifically, he targeted Cobb County, home of the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and designated site of the 2021 All-Star game. Long a bastion of GOP strength, Cobb County finally tipped Democratic in 2016 and then gave Biden a 56,000-vote margin in 2020. Kudos to the political wizards who helped him think that one through.

Georgia has been undergoing an almost biological cellular division for nearly a half-century now. With every passing year, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state have drifted further and further apart in just about every measurable way — including economics, educational attainment and population health.

And politics. The earliest sightings of Republicans in modern Georgia took place in metropolitan Atlanta about 50 years ago. They clawed their way to prominence and ultimately dominance at county courthouses in fast-growing suburban Atlanta counties and then began to infiltrate the state legislature.

Since then, Democrats have reasserted control at most Atlanta-area county governments, but Republicans have invaded and now all but own rural Georgia — and the State Capitol. It plainly escaped the attention of the White House and the MLB that the sponsors of S.B. 202 hail not from Atlanta, Decatur, Lawrenceville or Marietta, but from such far-flung rural climes as Sylvania, Danielsville, Cataula, Chickamauga, Perry, Ocilla and Vidalia.

If economic punishment was the goal, a better strategy might have been to rattle some budgetary sabers at, for example, Augusta’s Fort Gordon, which sits next door to the Senate District represented by Senator Max Burns (R-Sylvania), who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee that produced the final version of S.B. 202 and is listed as its No. 1 sponsor, as well as other South Georgia military installations and federal facilities.

If, instead, the objective was political humiliation, you’d think they might have noticed that Burns’s sprawling, largely-rural east-Georgia district also sweeps into Augusta and brackets a certain well-tended golf course that will be ground zero for the sports media for the next several days.

Not for nothing, the 2021 Master’s Tournament, as it does every Covid-free year, will double as a post-legislative party scene for lobbyists and lawmakers and an entertainment venue for the state’s well-heeled corporate leaders, who will no doubt have to spend some of their time trying to convince their out-of-state customers and prospects that the state is not actually run by knuckle-dragging racists.

It may be a tough sell. A betting man might wager that Stacey Abrams and her minions will find their way to the gates of Augusta National in time to make the evening news. And that the estimable U.S. Representative James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) will cross the Savannah River to lend a hand. Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper can probably be expected to set up live shots at the Amen Corner.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the bill and various analyses is that there’s a fair argument to be made that the legislation is not quite as horrific as first thought. As an example, Democrats complained mightily that the legislation will greatly restrict ballot drop boxes used in the last election for absentee ballot applications and actual ballots. But drop boxes didn’t exist at all prior to the last election cycle; Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger used the emergency powers of his office to authorize them during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, at least, the use of a limited number of such boxes (to be located inside government buildings and available during business hours) is codified into state law.

Another relatively innocuous change cuts the window prior to elections for applying for absentee ballots from six months to, for some odd reason, 78 days. That strikes me as plenty of time to apply for an absentee ballot — although responding to a flood of requests in a shorter window of time could stress elections offices in big counties — which, frankly, might help give the state the excuse it needs to exercise a new power it just gave itself to step in and fire local elections superintendents.

Beyond that, S.B. 202 really is pretty horrific. It’s difficult to read it and avoid a judgment that it will make voting harder in large urban Democratic counties, especially in minority precincts, and easier in mostly Republican rural counties. (This subject deserves a screed of its own, which I’ll try to get to later; in the meantime, a good analysis appears in today’s New York Times.)

But even if the final version of S.B. 202 was totally benign, motive and intent matter. Stampeded following the 2020 election by a zombie-like army of Trump-enthralled rural voters convinced that their own party’s leaders had stolen the election for Biden, Republican legislators began drafting bills that stopped just short of requiring DNA tests to get an absentee ballot. Early versions of the legislation were so repellant that the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, proclaimed himself “disgusted” and refused to preside over the State Senate’s consideration of the bill, and four GOP senators found a way to avoid voting on that version of the bill.

Optics matter too. The provision outlawing giving food and water to voters stuck in long voting lines — as minority voters in urban areas often are — was amazingly bone-headed. So was Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to sign the bill behind closed doors while flanked by White legislators and sitting under a painting of a plantation — and then, for God’s sake, to put out an official photograph of the historic event.

Add to this that while Kemp was signing the bill into law, a Black female state legislator who’d had the temerity to knock on the governor’s door was being put in handcuffs, arrested and hauled away by a pair of well-fed state troopers — in full view of multiple video cameras and cellphones.

At that point, any substantive case that might — might — have been made for the law was a lost cause. “Georgia G.O.P. Passes Major Law to Limit Voting Amid Nationwide Push,” thundered The New York Times. From The Washington Post: “As Georgia’s new law shows, when Black people gain local power, states strip that power away.”

Enter now the White House and Major League Baseball, and recognize that the laws of physics also apply to politics: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Put another way, if Republicans do something stupid, they can count on the Democrats to do something just as stupid right back.

Thus did Biden and the MLB lurch into ready/fire/aim mode and deprive businesses and employees in an increasingly Democratic part of the state of, according to a Cobb Travel and Tourism executive, more than $100 million in projected cash flow.

Clearly, one of the Two Georgias deserved all this economic pain, radioactive headlines and political opprobrium — but it wasn’t Metro Atlanta or Cobb County. Now, though, the problem isn’t just that Atlanta is paying an economic price for rural Georgia’s retrograde politics, it’s that there’s almost certainly more to come.

As AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer put it this weekend, “The loss of baseball’s All-Star game was just the beginning. Why, with a little more work from those beneath the Gold Dome, we can become Birmingham before you know it.”

“Why,” he added a few paragraphs later, “would any major sporting league – or major company for that matter – want to have anything to do with a leadership that so eagerly gives credence to a bald-faced lie?”

Here he makes an important point. The Georgia General Assembly adjourned last week after devoting much of its legislative energy to producing a 98-page law based spawned entirely by President Trump’s fictitious claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

One byproduct of that legislative disaster is that it spawned a political virus for which there is no obvious vaccine — and no way of knowing where or how it might spread. Aside from the economic development implications, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether the 5-star Black athletes now dressing out for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs might begin to think twice about playing football in a state where the Legislature apparently wants to hinder their right to vote.

If, for instance, running back Zamir “Zeus” White and wide receiver Georgia Pickens were to even glance in the direction of the transfer portal because of the new law, let’s just say that the likely opposite reaction would be very unequal — and would require Governor Kemp to build a bigger fence around the State Capitol to hold the UGA alumni association at bay.

If the recent presidential and Senate elections marked tipping points in Georgia politics, the enactment of S.B. 202 may prove to be an even more important inflection point in the long-running political war between Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. My hunch as well is that one opposite and equal reaction to S.B. 202 is that voter outrage in Metro Atlanta will remain at a boiling point through the 2022 election cycle. Bad press for depriving voters standing in long lines of food and water may prove to be the least of the Republicans’ problems.

In the Two Georgias, a big, mega-million dollar hit on Metro Atlanta and Cobb County is a small price for Senator Burns and his colleagues to pay to calm the Trump-inflamed fever swamps they represent.

In fact, it’s no price at all. Which is the problem. Burns’s hometown of Sylvania is more than 200 miles from Truist Park, and most of his fellow GOP colleagues live at least 100 miles from the ballpark.

At the risk of being uncharitable, I can’t help but wonder if some of these legislators — and their constituents — aren’t laughing up their sleeves (if not out loud) at Metro Atlanta’s misfortune. For them, S.B. 202 was a two-fer. Not only did they weaken the region politically, they nicked it for tens of millions of dollars in business in the process.

I’ll close by suggesting that this need not be the end of the opening chapter of this story. Georgia’s newly-empowered Democrats in Washington — led by Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — should make this case to the White House and Major League Baseball and implore them to reverse the All-Star game decision. It may not be too late, and a reversal would undo a major mistake and set the stage for a discussion about how to exact economic retribution on those who actually deserve it.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Early TIGC notes on the 2020 election and the two political Georgias

Trouble in God’s Country’s preliminary take on Tuesday’s still-being-counted presidential election results:

First, Georgia’s overall political map won’t change much if at all. President Trump, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are carrying the same counties their parties have carried in the past few election cycles, as this map illustrates. Trump will carry the 130 counties shown in various shades of red (the darker the red, the bigger his margin) and Biden will dominate in the 29 shown in mostly paler shades of blue (ditto on the shading).

The good news for Democrats is that — based on vote counts pulled from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office this morning — Biden is generally out-performing Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee (who, of course, did pretty well, coming within two points of defeating Republican Brian Kemp).

Biden’s doing a little better than Abrams in about half the counties she carried in 2018 and, perhaps even more important, added to the Democratic share in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties that are still solidly Republican, as this table illustrates:

Significant suburban and exurban counties where Biden cut into the GOP margin

The flip side of that, of course, is that Trump is largely lagging behind Governor Brian Kemp’s 2018 performance, if only, in many cases, by a fraction of a point. But his share of the overall vote trails Kemp’s in 129 counties, is better in 29 others and appears to be dead-even in one (Talbot County).

Also clear from these early returns is where the next major partisan ground war will be fought in Georgia. If Biden has gained ground in Metro Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, the Republicans appear to be trying to build a political Maginot Line of sorts that runs from Rome and Floyd County on the Alabama border pretty much due east to the South Carolina line.

The North Georgia Hills are now home base for the Georgia GOP.

The two dozen or so counties north of that line, especially those along the border with Tennessee and North Carolina, gave Trump 70 and 80 percent of their vote — as they did Kemp in 2018.

(At this writing, Trouble in God’s Country is unable to confirm reports that Republicans are planning to build a physical wall across that line (let alone that Mexico will pay for it) or that the few Democrats still hiding in the North Georgia hills are being rounded up and deported to Cobb and Gwinnett counties.)

There are, of course, still dozens of solidly Republican rural counties in Middle and South Georgia, but the difference between them and their North Georgia counterparts is that most of them are losing population and shrinking economically. North Georgia is, for the most part, growing.

From TIGC’s perspective, the bottom line in these early numbers is that — no matter who carries the state or wins the presidency — Georgia is continuing to tear itself apart politically. Only 14 of the state’s 159 counties were decided by 10 points or less. Trump carried one county (Brantley) just over 90 percent of the vote; 24 with more than 80 percent; 42 with more than 70 percent, and another 43 with 60 percent-plus.

Further reinforcing that point: Biden is getting 70 percent of his vote from 29 largely urban and suburban counties he’s carrying (and that number will almost certainly rise as the final votes come in from Fulton County and other metro area counties). Trump, meanwhile, is pulling 66 percent of his vote from the 130 largely rural counties where he’s leading.

Some 40 years ago, some editorial writers and civic leaders began to sound the alarm about the widening economic divide between what came to be called “the two Georgias.” At the time, most political leaders were loathe to acknowledge the problem. Today, though, it’s clear that there are two political Georgias, and it’s far from clear how they can be put back together.

Covid-19 may stir a perfect storm for rural Georgia

When I began work on this project some years back and came up with the title “Trouble in God’s Country,” I was thinking about things like the urban-rural divide in economics, education, healthcare, and politics.  It never crossed my mind that a new plague might come along that would stir up what might be a perfect storm for rural Georgia.

To be sure, Metro Atlanta and the state’s other urban areas will obviously take huge beatings in this as well, but rural communities may prove even more vulnerable, and not even in the long run.  Without even bothering to run through my usual tons of data, we can take judicial note of certain indisputable realities.

The most basic is that Georgia’s rural communities are older and less healthy.  That alone puts a Covid-19 target on their backs.  Add to that a healthcare delivery system that might charitably be described as frail and you’ve already got the makings of a heaping helping of trouble in God’s country.

But there’s more.  You can stir politics, religion, and crime into the mix.  As I’ve documented before, rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican and pro-Trump, and there’s already national polling by Pew Research suggesting that Republicans are taking Covid-19 less seriously than Democrats (or at least were until President Trump and FOX News began shifting tone earlier this week).

From the Pew report on its polling: “ … a vast majority of Republicans (76%) say the news media have exaggerated the risks associated with the virus – 53% greatly and 24% slightly – while far fewer (17%) say the media have gotten it about right. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely than Republicans to think the news media have gotten the level of risk about right (41%).”

As for religion and crime, it’s not for nothing that the region of Georgia from the gnat line south is known as both the Bible Belt and the Prison Belt.  Both churches and prisons hold the potential to serve as lethal vectors for the bug.  I started canvassing rural Georgia contacts earlier this week and one common theme in the feedback revolved around a reluctance to cancel church services; as things have worked out, it sounds like the cancellations are indeed taking place, maybe a week later than they might have.  In several communities, churches are reportedly planning to live-stream their services via Facebook and other technologies.

Prisons are a different story.  According to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website, its 34 state prisons house 52,000 felony offenders, and it’s difficult to imagine a more active breeding ground for Covid-19.  The vast majority of those prisons are in rural Georgia, most of them in Middle and South Georgia (as the red dots on GDC’s facilities map, here, illustrate). DOC Facilities Map

Those prison populations are constantly ebbing and flowing, as newly sentenced felons begin serving their time and those who have completed their sentences are freed.  Meanwhile, thousands of rural Georgians who work at those prisons come and go to fill the three daily shifts at each of them.

As it turns out, one of those employees has already tested positive for Covid-19, as both GDC and the AJC reported yesterday, although GDC hasn’t said where the employee worked.  So far, the department hasn’t reported any inmate infections, but it’s obviously a significant concern: GDC’s home page currently features a “COVID-19 UPDATES” banner and a “Covid19 Response” statement detailing the department’s response to the bug.  Among other things, all visitation has been suspended and prisoner movement is being limited to “required medical transfers.”

As for positive tests around the state, those now appear to be seeping rapidly into rural Georgia.  Any early expectations that the virus might do most of its damage in urban areas and not find its way to the hinterlands is being undercut by daily reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health.   The number of positive tests went from 197 in 28 counties on Tuesday to 287 in 34 counties on Wednesday (with the home counties of a half-dozen victims “unknown”).

If, as these maps suggest, it turned up first in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, it is now making its way below the gnat line.

And there’s some evidence that the reality on the ground in some localities is outpacing the information being reported on a daily basis by DPH.  Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a South Georgia hot spot, and DPH today put the number of confirmed cases there at 20.  But at about the same time DPH was posting its Wednesday numbers, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany was holding a press conference where, according to the Albany Herald, it reported two more deaths (for a total of four), a total of 40 patients who had tested positive (and were either in the hospital or at home), and nearly 500 more area residents who were still awaiting test results.  Six Phoebe Putney employees have tested positive, the Herald reported.

And Thursday evening, the Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital reported that an Early County, Ga., woman had died there of the virus.

_________

If rural Georgians were a little slower than their city cousins to react to the Coronavirus threat, they may now be taking it more seriously.  I canvassed a half-dozen contacts early in the week and then again yesterday and today.  All reported that the pace seemed to be picking up.  One South Georgia contact who reported earlier this week that people were mocking the “panic” and not changing their behavior indicated earlier today that was changing; more and more businesses cutting hours and more people were self-isolating.

Another contact, Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, emailed me around mid-afternoon that it was “safe to say that we are seeing changes in day-to-day behavior.  Foot traffic in our office is down and the citizens that continuously support our locally owned eateries are more than likely to get their meal to-go rather than dining in.  The best that I can put it is that social distancing is tough in a tight-knit community, yet a majority of our citizens are taking precautions.”

And this from a northeast Georgia weekly newspaper editor: “Day-to-day has changed drastically. A lot of parents are getting a crash course in home-schooling and remote, electronic and digital learning. It also shows in dramatic fashion how a lack of adequate broadband can be a real disadvantage to a rural county without that kind of infrastructure!

“The question about the seriousness of the situation being slow to take hold was a good one,” he added.  “On a Tuesday, the track coach was planning on winning the state championship. On Friday he was bemoaning the fact that his team would probably not even get a shot at that achievement.”