On a rainy day in Atlanta, Georgia's Republican Governor Nathan Deal and the audience had to move indoors from the Liberty Plaza to the State Capitol. One would think he also moved political parties, giving an Inaugural Address that a Democrat could have just as easily delivered.
In this Southern red state, one might have expected a Republican Governor who won reelection to have given the ol' "God, Guns, and Guts" speech, with plenty of red meat to fire up a conservative crowd. And why not? This group overwhelmingly backed Deal in the primaries, choosing the incumbent over a more conservative candidate like Dalton Mayor David Pennington. And they stuck with Deal in a tough battle with State Senator Jason Carter, grandson of the former president Jimmy Carter.
But Jimmy or Jason Carter could have easily been the one giving the speech Deal choose. He started the speech off in the State Capitol by touting the new Liberty Plaza:
In that plaza, which we will dedicate this Friday afternoon, we prominently display symbols of our freedoms: the Statue of Liberty and Georgia's Liberty Bell. Soon, on Capitol grounds, we'll add a statue of Georgia's native son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped fulfill America's promise of freedom and equality for all. He serves as a symbol for those ideals, but history recognizes him as a man of action. Within our new plaza, the symbols of freedom will welcome the exercise of freedom. There, Georgians will engage in the marketplace of ideas. There, they will advocate or oppose government actions. There, they will assemble to express their thoughts and opinions, openly and without fear.
I half expected him to add that there would be a showing of the movie Selma in the main gallery following the speech.
Governor Deal moved on to talk about liberty and freedom, linking it to steps that would be taken to help those non-violent offenders languishing in prisons:
Those who have never lost their freedom can easily take it for granted. Perhaps, therefore, liberty may hold some deeper meaning for those who have lost it and are now seeking to regain it. In Georgia, we have taken monumental steps in recent years to give nonviolent offenders a new beginning. As a result, our alternative courts are paying dividends for offenders, their families and taxpayers. We have indeed found a smarter way to address the cases of nonviolent offenders whose underlying issues are addiction or mental illness. Instead of burdening taxpayers with the cost of a prison sentence, instead of branding the offender with the stigma of incarceration, these individuals are getting the treatment they need; they are keeping jobs; and they are keeping families together. At the beginning of the current fiscal year, there were roughly 4,700 active participants in our accountability courts seeking a second chance. For those individuals and their families, these new beginnings are restoring hope.
Huh? I had to look closer to make sure I wasn't listening to the Democratic Party rebuttal. Deal added:
For those who are already in our prison system, many of them now have the chance for a new beginning too. Approximately 70 percent of Georgia's inmates don't have a high school diploma. If their lack of an education is not addressed during their incarceration, when they re-enter society they have a felony on their record but no job skills on their résumé. I am here to tell you, an ex-con with no hope of gainful employment is a danger to us all. This is why we must work to get these individuals into a job. Our prisons have always been schools. In the past, the inmates have learned how to become better criminals. Now they are taking steps to earn diplomas and gain job skills that will lead to employment after they serve their sentences.
Finding ways to educate ex-cons usually doesn't come up on the Republican menu for a policy agenda nationwide.
Deal went on to throw his support behind drug court, a special judicial program that emphasizes rehabilitation and provides a series of carrots and sticks to participants with the goal of getting users clean. He's hardly a newcomer to the issue, having been to my home county to speak at a graduation ceremony for drug court, and has brought up the initiative frequently, though some in attendance told me the program works, but is in danger of running out of money.
Deal did conclude with support for Charter schools, just to remind us he is a member of the Grand Old Party. But a number of "New Democrats" in the state are jumping on the bandwagon for these.
One could point out that Deal was originally elected as a Democrat Congressman, and shifted parties in the 1990s, so this isn't something completely unexpected. But with a large majority in the Georgia General Assembly and a state with many more Republicans than Democrats, Deal seems to have recognized there's still value in the middle ground. It's a lesson that Republicans could learn, as they may control both houses of Congress, but only have 26 percent self-identify with the GOP (according to Gallup polls), behind Independents and Democrats.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.