With the legislative session squarely behind him and the bill-signing period over, Gov. Nathan Deal now heads out on the campaign trail. And he’s going to have to defend the measures he signed as well as those he vetoed.
That tension was evident Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol when Deal signed into law a bill that authorizes construction of a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many present, including King’s son, Martin Luther King III, praised Deal’s support for the monument while speaking out forcefully against bills he’s signed, specifically a measure that will allow guns in more places.
“The more guns we have acquired, the higher our violence seems to go. So why we seem to continue to go in that direction is certainly of concern,” King said.
He also said the new law expands gun rights only so far.
“It’s a bit unfortunate to mandate a policy that says you can have guns in school, you can have guns in churches, you can have guns in bars but you can’t bring any guns into the Capitol,” he said. “That seems a bit inconsistent to me.”
Such opinions couldn’t have been a surprise to Gov. Deal. The issue surfaced at the gun-bill signing last week in Ellijay, where Rep. Alan Powell said he would have no problem with guns at the Capitol since “some of us can shoot back.”
Yet when reporters asked Deal about it Tuesday, he cut them off.
“I’m here to celebrate and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said, his voice quavering slightly. “That’s the piece of legislation we signed today and that’s why I’m here for that purpose. What has become law in other signings doesn’t have relevance to this event.”
Democratic challenger, Jason Carter, did not respond to a request for comment. He backed the gun bill, and like Deal, has found himself having to defend his support to others in his party and the national media.
Two of Deal’s other opponents back the bill but have concerns. State School Superintendent John Barge, one of two Republican candidates challenging Deal, says he would have negotiated a better bill with lawmakers if he were governor.
“The idea you could go into a bar and have a weapon legally is very concerning, just knowing what alcohol does to the body,” said his spokesman, Joel Thornton.
Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, Deal’s other Republican challenger, said he backs the gun bill. But he says it should have included a provision allowing guns on college campuses, something Deal opposed.
“Restricting other people’s freedoms does not make us freer,” he said. “The bad guys have guns on those campuses.”
The gun bill isn’t the only measure that will likely follow Deal on the campaign trail.
He also signed a bill prohibiting a sitting Governor from expanding Medicaid coverage.
Pennington backs Deal’s stance to avoid expanding Medicaid, but he said many Georgians lack healthcare coverage because Deal’s failed economic policies are making it hard to find jobs with benefits.
By contrast, Barge has concerns about that measure. Thornton said like Deal, Barge is wary of saddling the state with the additional costs expansion would bring. But he said the state has to do a better job of taking care of its poorest residents.
“We can’t just make life hard for them,” he said.
That thought echoes the concerns of more centrist voters, a voting block Deal would like to capture, at least in part.
Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has urged Deal to expand Medicaid under Pres. Obama’s federal healthcare overhaul. Warnock attended the bill-signing ceremony, and earlier this year, he was at the Capitol on another occasion but for entirely different reason. He was part of a group arrested for protesting Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
He said Deal’s objection to Pres. Obama’s healthcare law reminded him of a statement Martin Luther King made at the March on Washington in 1963.
“As he talked about the dream he had for America he said, ‘Down in the state of Alabama, its governor’s lips are dripping with the words interposition and nullification,’” Warnock said. “I think we are watching with the kind of obstruction of the Affordable Care Act, and their refusal to expand Medicaid, we are watching the 21st century version of interposition and nullification.”
Those terms came to define opposition to school desegregation during the Civil Rights era.
Another bill causing a stir is one that will require welfare and food stamp recipients suspected of narcotics abuse to submit to drug tests, which Deal said Tuesday will probably spur a court challenge. No other state in the country has implemented a program using so-called suspicion-based testing for welfare and food stamp applicants, according to legal experts.
Some political strategists have theorized Deal is moving too far to the right for the May 20 primary, and will have trouble courting more centrist voters in November. How much voters pay attention to the bills he signed during the campaign remains to be seen.