There was a time in recent Georgia history when it was impolite to talk about the concept of “Two Georgias.” There was the thriving and growing Atlanta – the economic engine of the state.
Then, there was everything else. The “Other Georgia.” The people that could see the writing on the wall. The people who knew their rural grip on power was slipping. The people who could see that economic and population trends were shifting against them. The people who liked things the way they were, but knew times were changing whether they liked it or not.
“Atlanta,” by its broadest definition, now has about 5.5 million of our 10 million Georgians. Atlanta is thus not only the economic engine of the state. It is now the population center.
“Other Georgia” is now in both the political and economic minority. The fears of being left behind are no longer unfounded. Depending on just how “not Atlanta” a county may be, the outlook for the future ranges from challenging to bleak.
House Speaker David Ralston has declared there will be an off-season effort to study the challenges and future of rural Georgia. It is not coincidental that when his gavel is hammered to ring Sine Die for the legislature later this month, the race will essentially begin to become the new occupant of the Governor’s Mansion – located in the Atlantiest part of “Atlanta.”
Some are speculating that the actions of Speaker Ralston are designed to lay the groundwork for a gubernatorial run. He’s been clear in not ruling that out. At least three potential primary rivals to the presumed frontrunner, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, got promotions in Washington due to the November elections. Tom Price, Tom Graves, and Doug Collins are no longer in the mix for a run.
With the field narrowed, there’s an easier path for a statehouse-backed candidate to challenge Cagle, which could be the speaker himself. There’s also a vacuum of others to generate contrasting themes to be injected into a campaign.
Speaker Ralston is aware that when the term “two Georgias” was coined, the House speaker, a very tenured Tom Murphy, didn’t run for governor, he often picked the governor. And yet, the politics of 2018 are not the politics of the 1980s.
Still, it’s possible for the current speaker to back a candidate for governor that has a legitimate shot at winning. His influence could go a long way, being leveraged across roughly 120 state House members and a business-donor community that has grown uneasy with grandstanding via social issues legislation that has originated in the state Senate.
There is another motivation that requires less political intrigue. “Other Georgia,” specifically the southern half, stands to be left behind in the next statewide election as bad as many of its economic fortunes have been for decades. Evidence exists in the primary runoff map of 2014 between Jack Kingston and now Sen. David Perdue.
Kingston had everything going for him except geography. But when the votes were counted, there was a distinct demarcation of counties that voted for Kingston, and those that went for Perdue. There is now a political Fall Line in Georgia, and many candidates looking at 2018 statewide races will be encouraged to target their resources in North Georgia.
Speaker Ralston will be spending the next nine months or longer highlighting the plight of the other Georgia. Issues of rural health care, broadband access, business climate, and education – all of which are barriers to job and wealth creation as well as population growth – will be front and center.
Whether or not it is the platform for a gubernatorial candidate Ralston is immaterial with respect to the elevation of these issues. The material result is that the real problems of “Other Georgia” will not be lost in 2018 and beyond.
(Charlie Harper, a Fayette County native, is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the executive director of PolicyBEST, an Atlanta-based pro-business advocacy group.)