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Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - 12:57pm

Deal's MLK Moment? Governor's Idea Gets People Talking

A picture is worth 1,000 words, the saying goes. So how many words is a statue or a monument worth? Well, given that we’re talking about a potential tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that it was proposed by a Republican governor seeking re-election and that the tribute would be on the grounds of the state Capitol, the answer is many thousands of words.

Gov. Nathan Deal surprised some Monday by including in his tribute to King that he’d like to honor the slain Civil Rights leader on the grounds of the Capitol, presumably with a statue or a monument.

To be clear, he didn’t say a statue in his remarks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and there’s talk that the tribute might come in the form of naming an assembly area for protestors after King. But you get the idea.

If nothing else, the single line in Deal’s speech gave politicos and the people who follow them much to talk about.

If at one time Deal was coasting toward an easy re-election later this year, those days are clearly over. He faces two challengers for the Republican nomination in the May primary, and a Democratic opponent in the November general election (more on that below). Evidence of this abounds. He’s adding funds to the education budget and wants to give public school teachers a raise. That's not to suggest election-year pandering is the Governor's sole motivation, but funding schools and educators won't hurt him in November.

And now he proposes a tribute to MLK, which Deal promised to nail down this session.

Democrats, in particular, had a lot to say about the timing of the announcement.

A Good Idea, Sure. But From Him?

And their reactions ran the gamut, from grousing that the news was merely a political stunt to praising Deal for the gesture. The grousing gave Republicans a chance to take umbrage. But first, the reactions from Democrats.

Senators Vincent Fort and Donzella James, both of Atlanta, have other suggestions for honoring King, which they offered passionately from the well of the Senate Tuesday morning.

Fort echoed the comment by Ebenezer’s Senior Pastor, Raphael Warnock, that instead of a statue, Deal should expand Medicaid. He’s declined to do so even though under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would initially pay for the new enrollees.

Sen. James, on the other hand, suggested Deal raise the minimum wage. Both underlined that words mean little; it’s action that’s king.

“I’d forego an MLK statue in a New York minute if Deal expanded Medicaid,” Fort said.

Others welcomed the gesture, no matter its provenance. Democratic gubernatorial challenger Jason Carter said the Governor’s idea is a good one. The state Senator from Decatur said he attended the King holiday celebration in Atlanta Monday with Democratic Congressman John Lewis, and he said Lewis, who marched and bled with King, endorsed Deal’s proposal to honor King at the Capitol.

A Rose Is A Rose

“I think Martin Luther King’s legacy is one of the greatest aspects of Georgia’s history and heritage,” Sen. Carter said in an interview with GPB. “And it’s bigger than all of us, and I think it would be appropriate to do that. I was glad to hear the Governor say he wanted to work together to find an appropriate way to honor Dr. King and I think that’s the only way to do it.”

Perhaps the most unusual reaction came from Rep. Keisha Waites, an Atlanta Democrat. She said the news of the tribute “touched her heart,” and she’s drafting a resolution to thank Gov. Deal for his idea. (My editor doesn’t like exclamation points but c’mon, that sentence deserves one!). She said as an African-American legislator, she wouldn’t be serving under the Gold Dome today if it weren’t for Dr. King, and she’s grateful to anyone who wants to recognize and honor his legacy.

“We have to start somewhere,” she told GPB. “I certainly applaud the Governor’s efforts. I think it’s a step in the right direction. Certainly it’s an election year. That means nothing to me. The reality is, this needs to happen.”

Now For That Umbrage

Sen. Charlie Bethel, a Dalton Republican and Deal’s floor leader in the Senate, spoke after Sen. Fort lambasted Deal’s attempt to honor King. And Bethel bristled at any notion that the Governor is not a man of action. He called Tuesday's news that the DeKalb County school district is no longer under probation a “marker” of what Deal has accomplished. Deal had suspended dysfunctional school board members, a decision that was later upheld by the courts. And Tuesday's announcement that the school district is no longer in danger of losing accreditation was hailed as a vindication of Deal's approach.

“That is important in DeKalb County but I promise you it is important in the state of Georgia,” Bethel told his Senate colleagues. “So you want action? Look to the second floor because that’s where good things are happening in Georgia.”

Capitol Tributes Have Mixed History

The issue of who merits a statue or a portrait on Capitol grounds would be a rich enough topic, even without the spirited gubernatorial race in the background.

Just this fall the Georgia Building Authority removed the statue of lawmaker Tom Watson from the front steps of the Capitol. Watson was many things – judging from the ebullient engraving at the base of the statue – but what’s most salient was his role in advocating for the 1915 lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who was convicted of killing a young girl. And many groups lobbied for the removal of the statue, which often served as an unwitting and unwanted backdrop at press conferences and rallies at the Capitol.

Now the statue sits a stone’s throw from the Capitol, in a plaza where your GPB News Now correspondent sometimes has lunch on warm Georgia days. But I digress.

Of course, this being Georgia, an existing portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Capitol has its own history, and itinerary, apparently, since the painting has been moved.

Three years ago, the painting left its prominent spot outside of the Governor’s office to make room for a portrait of former Governor Sonny Perdue. The painting remains on the second floor, in a gallery that includes Georgia’s Governors. But some took issue with the relocation, and Civil Rights groups protested, to an avail.

Session Moving Ahead

The MLK tribute wasn’t the only thing getting lawmakers talking Tuesday, the sixth day of the legislative session. Legislators are into their second week back at the Capitol, and they’re setting a record pace.

Gov. Deal signed into law Tuesday a bill that will move the state’s primary elections from July to May 20, to align them with the federal calendar. Does that mean lawmakers will move even faster now that the reason for the rush is law?

Other top issues discussed Tuesday included legalizing medical marijuana (in Georgia? Um, yes, apparently). And on Wednesday, lawmakers will plow into subcommittee hearings on the budget.

Like we said on the first day of the session: don’t blink.

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