Brian Kemp

The MDJ sat down with Georgia's newly elected governor, Brian Kemp, in his office at the Capitol on Wednesday where he outlined his vision for this year's legislative session and beyond.

A:Well, you know, I haven't been too emotional about all this. I guess after you've been through a hard-fought two-year campaign, you just get oblivious to all the pomp and circumstance. I'm really ready to go to work. My family, they've obviously been through a lot. I think they were a little more emotional Monday than I was. I was more anxious to get through it all so I was very prepared, and in a lot of ways when I got out there, it kind of put me at ease … Our team did a great job planning it out. All I can take credit for is getting a good team in place. They really did all the work, but it was a great venue, great setup.

Q: Are you all settled into the mansion?

 A: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say all settled in, but we are there … We went up on Sunday. I think I left Athens between 9:30 and 10 (a.m.) I had to be somewhere at like 2 (p.m.) so I didn't get a chance to settle in much. I’m basically living out of my suitcase. I got several suits for this week and that's really about all I've done … During session we're going to be there. We'll be at the mansion a lot. And I know we will through the rest of the year as well. I've had an apartment here in Atlanta for almost nine years now … I basically just live out of a suitcase. I mean I have a suitcase, a gym bag and a cooler that I bring every week. I bring all the leftovers the girls won't eat to heat them up in my toaster oven or microwave. So I'm kinda used to that.

Q: Since you’ve taken office, have you spoken with any former governors, and if so, who?

A: Oh yeah, I've had some great conversations. It really started off, obviously, in the transition speaking with Gov. (Nathan) Deal and his staff on the budget. They had great briefing documents for us on critical issues facing the state, getting (us) up to speed on different things that they've been dealing with … I've spoken with Secretary Perdue — former Gov. Sonny Perdue — quite a bit, just picking his brain on issues because I’ve served with both of them. So it was natural for me to be talking to both of them and both of them want me to be successful, so that's been great. And then the Deals had a very nice lunch for us, (Kemp’s wife) Marty, the girls and I with all the former governors and first ladies, and so that was kind of neat … Of course all of them (said) ‘if I can ever help you, including President (Jimmy) Carter, you know, please let us know. We want you to be successful,’ which is great. And look, I've known Gov. (Roy) Barnes for a long time, have been in opposition to him politically at times and have been allies at times ... I have a good relationship with Roy. He's, you know, he's a good guy, and he's a great, great lawyer.

Q: Looking back, did you expect your races to be so tough? And what do you think it was that allowed you to connect with the majority of voters and win?

A: I definitely knew it was gonna be a tough race. I never took this race for granted from the day I decided to run, through the primary, through the runoff and the general. I think that's one reason I was successful. It could have been very easy for me to go, ‘I got this in the bag.’ You know, this is still a red state, but it was a very unusual year out there as we saw around the country. Stacey Abrams was a very tough opponent, you know, very smart, hard-nosed. Her campaign fought to win, but we did too. We had a great plan and nobody's worked the state harder than I have, and that paid off on November the 6th.

Q: Were you surprised when you saw the metro Atlanta counties swing to the left?

A: No, not really. In the environment we were in, our polling the whole time said it was going to be a really close race. We didn't ever take anything for granted. It was a tough year in the metro areas, not only for me but for a lot of other people as well, you know, congressional candidates, legislators, and it wasn't just in Georgia, it was all over the country … The good thing is we got the most votes anybody's ever gotten in the history of the state of Georgia. We won and I've put the race behind me, and as I said in the inauguration speech, I'm going to be fighting for all Georgians, not just ones that voted for me…

Some of the things that were being said (on the campaign trail) were pretty outrageous. And that wasn't just by some of the media, it was definitely by a lot of the campaign operatives, third party folks that were out there … But we battled through that because we had the truth on our side… But look, they had a lot of money. I mean, I got the You Know What beat out of me the whole way… (Abrams) didn't have a runoff. She had a very easy primary because I guess (Stacey) Evans probably knew (with) the polling numbers for her, there was no way. So she didn't go after Abrams, probably trying to save her reputation for the future, which is pretty smart ... So Stacey never got hit the whole primary and she didn't have to spend money in the runoff like I did.

Q: Talk about your plans for your first 100 days in office.

A: (Something) I had promised to do on the campaign was (create) a Putting Georgians First Commission where we're going to get a diverse group of business people to go after cutting government regulation, streamlining processes, looking at innovation, looking at other things that we can do to really make Georgia the No. 1 state in the country for small business to continue to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and everything in between … We're working on naming the commission members. It'll be a 16-person commission and I'm very excited about that.

Q: You mentioned Georgia being a great place for business. That was one of Gov. Deal’s legacies. How do you continue that now and how do you make it better? How do we continue to attract businesses to the state?

A: My speeches have all been centered on building off this foundation that we have in Georgia right now thanks to, quite honestly, the leadership the governor produced through some very tough times. Gov. Deal's historic run, economically, with the lowest unemployment that we've had in ... maybe as low as it's ever been ... It's really been a historic run. Obviously, there are choppy waters in front of us so we want to prepare for that, continue to budget conservatively and look for ways for state government to continue to be more efficient so we can keep our AAA bond rating, do more with less and use the Putting Georgians First Commission and our commitment to cutting regulations to keep a good business environment here ... That's very important to people that are looking to either expand or come to Georgia … I think as long as the economy stays strong that we can continue to lower taxes … Continuing to reduce the state income tax is a good place to start and that helps everybody no matter where you live. It's what the Legislature did last year and we should be able to do it again. That’s our plan is to keep fully funding public education and work on lowering taxes…

As our state grows, we've got to spend more money because we have more people. We have more money coming in, but we have more services to provide ... I'm not somebody that says state government doesn't need to grow at all. It's got to grow if your state's growing. It just doesn't need to grow at the rate the economy's growing because we're going to slow down. We can't stay at these levels…

I want to look at ways that we can use technology to make government more efficient. So in the future, as the state grows, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to grow state employees. We maybe could spend our money upfront on technology and then in the long term, not have to grow people and retirement and healthcare costs.

Q: On the campaign trail, you pledged $5,000 raises for each teacher in the state. Is that a promise you wish to keep?

A: I'm planning on implementing the things I said I would do during the campaign and a $5,000 teacher pay raise was a commitment I made and we're going to announce a historic amount that I have in mind in my budget. You know the Legislature's got to weigh in on that as well. Where we end up, we'll see, but I think teachers will be very happy.

NOTE: Kemp announced in his address Thursday that he plans to give each teacher in the state $3,000 raises this year with the rest coming in future budgets.

Q: Gov. Deal was a Republican but he often moved to the center on certain issues, even if it meant going against members of his own party. If Republicans pass a religious liberty bill this session, do you veto it like your predecessor did or do you sign it into law?

A: Well, it depends on what it says. I’ve been very clear on RFRA. I support RFRA legislation that mirrors the federal statute only. It doesn't discriminate and it protects religious freedom and that is simple and very clear despite what other people may say. If there’s anything more or anything less, I’ll veto it … I've always been very clear that I would support and sign word for word what's in the federal statute.

Q: There has been talk about a bill that would allow folks without concealed carry permits to conceal carry their weapons. Where do you stand on that issue?

A: Well, I'm a huge supporter and have been an advocate for the Second Amendment. I shoot, I hunt, I carry. I will continue to do that. I'll make it a point to fulfill my campaign pledges that I've made. I haven't seen (the) bill. I know there's a lot of people that have issues with that. In some ways, legislation, if it's worded wrong, could actually take away the rights of Second Amendment supporters and that's something I would never support. But, you know, those are issues that we'll be working on during the session.

Q: Talk about your plans to improve health care in the state.

A: I support expanding the rural hospital tax credit ... I'm looking forward to working with the Legislature on that issue (to) address the doctor shortage and health care professional shortage that we have in rural Georgia. We've also got to use innovation and waivers to Obamacare to free up the private sector market and have reinsurance programs that help protect those that have a preexisting condition … Even if you expanded (Medicaid), there's not enough providers out there to provide the service for it. If you're making the argument which was made to expand Medicaid to get federal money, even though it's going to cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, of state dollars, not $150 to $200 million like my opponent said, all that money's gonna come right here in the metro area. It's not going to help the rural people because you don't have the providers out there to provide the service. So you're expanding a broken program … They want to give able-bodied people free health care. I want to put 'em to work and lower the private sector cost. I mean workforce development’s the No. 1 issue in the state. Nobody can find enough people. So why are we going to incentivize people by giving them free health care to stay home and not work?

Q: Gov. Deal was big on reforming the state’s criminal justice system. Is that something you hope to continue?

A: I'm more in the boat of kind of building off of what the governor did on criminal justice reform ... To me, the next step from there is public safety reform and that's going after street gangs and drug cartels because a lot of people that are in the programs that Gov. Deal is helping address are addicts. They're hooked on opioids, they're hooked on meth. They're getting that from these drug cartels and street gangs. So we've got to stop the flood from the source. And that's what I'm planning on doing.

Q: Georgia is going to be on the global stage here in a few weeks with the Super Bowl. But you have a federal government shutdown with people flooding into the airport. Does the state get involved?

A: I’m going to do everything I can to make that a successful week so that we show the world we’re a great international city and a great host city for any kind of sporting event or convention … I’ve spoken with folks that are close to that issue to ask if there’s anything that the state can do to be helpful in light of the federal shutdown, so we’re in discussions on that right now.

Q: Where will you be when the Super Bowl is played?

A: That is a good question. I’m still looking for tickets if you guys got any … I would imagine that's probably a place that I need to be to show my support for us having that great event … I think that’s part of my job as governor.

Q: Coming off such a divisive election, how do you reach across the aisle and become a governor for the entire state, not just those who voted for you?

A: It’s really not going to be hard for me to do. I’ve done it several times before. I had a very contentious race when I ran for the State Senate and barely won, but I went into office and I did what I said I would do. I represented our whole district in the Athens area and I got re-elected against a tough opponent in a very tough district that Roy Barnes had won 56 percent of the vote in …

The Democrats that have been around here a long time know that for our state to be successful and for them to represent their district well, they need to have a good relationship with the governor. That doesn’t mean we’re going to always agree on all the issues — but we can be respectful and there will be a lot of issues we can work on together … They know they can get a lot done down here but most of it has to have the backing of the governor. I understand that, too, and I want to be helpful to all parts of our state, even if they’re represented by somebody in the minority party.

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