In 2009, I confidently predicted that then-Congressman Nathan Deal would drop out of the Georgia governor's race before the Republican primary and then Secretary of State Karen Handel would be elected the first woman to hold the office.
In my mind there was no contest. Handel was a rising star in the Republican Party and Deal was a relatively unknown politician from the mountains. At that point, most knew the Hall County candidate only as a congressman who skedaddled out of Washington to avoid an ethics investigation.
Shortly thereafter, I received an email from a retired newspaperman saying I was as dumb as a post. In colorful language, he explained how Deal looked and sounded like a governor to people who actually vote.
A year later, following Deal's triumph over Handel in the primary and thumping of Democrat Roy Barnes in the general election, I received a second email from my journalist friend containing a well-worded and thoroughly profane "I told you so."
Pundits, rivals, and opposition have always underestimated Deal. And it is happening again.
Democrats are touting a recent report by Atlanta Unfiltered's Jim Walls, that claims Deal has been using a political action committee as a slush fund for family and friends. In addition, some former and current staffers with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission — formerly known as the State Ethics Commission — claim that the agency's executive director said Deal "owes me" for allegedly helping to cover up an ethics probe into his gubernatorial campaign. On Monday, the commission's board members (who are appointed by state leaders, including Deal) called for an independent investigation into the allegations. The governor says the claims are false.
Deal, who faces primary challenges next year from former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and current State School Superintendent John Barge, is no stranger to adversity created by both friend and foe.
When the 2010 primary took a turn for the nasty, Handel and allies such as RedState's Erick Erickson were not shy about mentioning the alleged reason for Deal's quick Washington exit. As a congressman, Deal was (and still is) part owner of a North Georgia salvage yard that had a sweetheart deal with the state to store rebuilt cars that required inspection. According to findings by the Office of Congressional Ethics, Deal used his influence to pressure state officials for his betterment. He left town before the group could take any action.
Deal seemed on the straight and narrow, but the perception of unethical behavior shadowed again in 2012 when he created a special position at Georgia Public Broadcasting for recently resigned state Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock. In exchange for a weekly program advising listeners on their job search, Rogers instantly became one of the highest paid employees of the perennially cash-strapped agency. It was all entirely legal and above board, however the stench of cronyism was unavoidable.
Now, on the eve of running for his second term, Deal is accused of funneling money to family members through an organization called Real PAC. According to Walls' research, the PAC has also received large donations from corporate interests that have sought business with the state. (A PAC official told Walls in July that the committee acts independent of the governor.)
Despite the continued hints of unethical behavior, according to a recent poll by the AJC, Deal has a 65 percent approval rating among Republicans and — wait for it — a shocking 46 percent approval rating from Democrats.
How does someone who seems to fall into scandal every time he steps off the sidewalk appear to be cruising to re-election this fall? It is because, despite his personal failings, Deal has made himself to be a competent executive. It also doesn't hurt that the only Democrat who could mount the strongest challenge against him — Mayor Kasim Reed — has spent the past three years as his BFF.
Deal showed a deft hand as he hopscotched from crisis to crisis in DeKalb County. First he replaced six members of the utterly inept school board. Then he removed indicted County CEO Burrell Ellis. Given his actions with Rogers, suspicion of playing personal power politics would be obvious. Instead Deal showed restraint, only stepping in when action had to be taken. And he was applauded.
It is difficult to ignore the dichotomy of a man constantly dogged by claims of old-fashioned, back-room maneuvering completely reorganizing the political structure of the state's second largest county — one which is predominantly Democrat and African-American. And he was praised for his doing what was necessary.
When he was not replacing corrupt and incompetent office holders, Deal focused on what could be the crowning achievement of his term: Deepening the Port of Savannah to accommodate the latest leviathan cargo ships. And if you believe the words recently delivered by Vice President Joe Biden during a recent visit to the cargo facility (one which Deal missed), it will happen.
Deal's greatest ally in this specific venture has been Reed, who is the only Democrat who can currently unseat Deal. And Deal knows this. However, they both agree that what is good for Georgia is good for Atlanta and an upgraded port would be a very good thing for both.
For Deal, whether it is a port on the coast, saving DeKalb from itself, and perhaps even his dealings with PACs and junkyards, the ends are always more important than the means. It is a trait of a man comfortable with power and who knows how to exercise it with precision.
And it is also the reason Deal will easily win re-election next fall because voters will always choose competence — even if there's a whiff of corruption.NOTE: This article has been altered to correct an error. Deal replaced six members of the DeKalb County Board of Education.
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