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Confederate Memorial Day Disappears From 2016 Georgia Holiday Calendars

By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

ATLANTA — Confederate Memorial Day has been struck from Georgia’s official 2016 state holiday calendar. So has Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Most state employees will still get days off for both events, but the controversial names have been replaced with the more neutral term “state holiday.”

The change was reflected in emails that landed this week in the inboxes of many state employees.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, said the state still intends to celebrate the days even if it doesn’t “spell it out by name.”

“There will be a state holiday on that day,” he said. “Those so inclined can observe Confederate Memorial Day and remember those who died in that conflict.”

But it was a noticeable departure from the 2015 calendar, which clearly listed April 27 as the Confederate holiday and Nov. 27 as Lee’s birthday. And it comes as Georgia’s embrace of Confederate symbols has come under increased scrutiny since the racially tinged massacre of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C., church by a suspected white supremacist.

Democrats including former Gov. Roy Barnes, who engineered the redesign of Georgia’s state flag 14 years ago, have said the state should abandon Confederate Memorial Day in favor of a holiday in February commemorating the day Georgia was founded. State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) has said he’s exploring legislation to force the issue.

Photo: Dorret via Flickr

GOP Candidates Court Southern Evangelicals

By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Evangelicals across the South say they are feeling alienated, even under siege, as they see the nation’s politics tilting toward the left. And there were few places where those fears echoed more loudly than a conference here Tuesday that attracted more than 13,000 would-be missionaries.

In speeches, forums and interviews at the convention, more than a dozen evangelical leaders and rank-and-file supporters cast the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same-sex marriage and failed efforts to outlaw abortion as a magnet that will draw more social conservatives to the polls.

They were echoed by two leading GOP presidential candidates who emphasized their faiths and promised to protect “religious liberty” proposals at the Send North America Conference, a two-day meeting of mostly Southern Baptist evangelicals aimed at inspiring the crowd toward embracing missionary work.

Both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio cast themselves as vigorous defenders of religious liberty and pledged to fight for threatened Christian communities overseas, even if it meant committing more ground troops to combat the Islamic State’s spread in Syria and Iraq.

“We need to stand up for people who are under attack like this,” Bush said to applause from the crowd in the sold-out arena. “Who in the world considers this a value worth fighting for other than the United States?”

About 1 in 4 Americans identifies himself or herself as an evangelical Christian. The powerful bloc helped fuel George W. Bush’s victories, but many Christian conservatives never warmed up in the same way to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Several of the 17 announced Republican candidates are jockeying to become the favorite of the evangelicals, who play an outsize role in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. Yet the possibility of a fractured vote splintering their voice has grown with so many political candidates trying to curry favor with them.

Among their potential favorites: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of Georgia’s GOP presidential primary in 2008; former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a hero to some social conservatives in the 2012 race; and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose combative rhetoric has made him a favorite of the crowd this year.

None of those candidates took the stage in Nashville, though. The rest of the GOP field, along with Democrat Hillary Clinton, either cited scheduling conflicts or were not invited to the event because of low polling numbers.

Both Bush and Rubio sought to appeal to the crowds with stories about the role of faith in their personal lives. Bush earned wild applause when he said the government should withdraw all funding for groups or clinics that offer abortions.

“Abortion should not be funded by the government — any government, in my mind,” he said.

And Rubio, who spoke in a prerecorded interview, earned applause when he promised to fight “extremists” who want to expand abortion rights and a legal system that could punish those who refuse to participate in gay weddings.

“We’ve now entered a very tenuous moment in the relationship between church and state in this country,” Rubio said. “We’re now on the water’s edge of an argument that some have begun that if you do not agree with same-sex marriage or whatever, that you’re actually discriminating against people.”

Bush and Rubio appeared before the conference two days ahead of the first Republican presidential debate and three days before they and eight other GOP candidates head to Atlanta for the RedState Gathering, which is also aimed at the trove of social conservatives in Georgia and the South.

The conference, held in the same arena where the NHL’s Predators take the ice, featured glossy video presentations and flashy Christian rock bands strumming gospel tunes as the crowd sang along. Influential preachers led prayer services to swooning worshippers. Ex-NFL head coach Tony Dungy talked about the role of faith in his life.

Politics was a constant undertone throughout the event, which will feature a third day of activities on Wednesday designed for pastors who hope to get more involved in electoral activism.

Many were glued to their phones on Monday tracking the Republican-backed effort to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health group facing questions about the group’s use of tissue from aborted fetuses. Preachers warned of a coming new phase in the culture war and talked of the faithful facing renewed persecution for their beliefs.

“No one saw Rome falling. And it fell,” warned Al Mohler, who heads the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He then urged the crowd not to be lulled into a false sense of security about the political muscle of Christian conservatives.

“There are folks right now who think we are in control,” he said. “Folks, they’ve got same-sex marriage in Oklahoma right now. And in Utah. And if you’re not safe in Utah, where are you safe?”

There was much discussion and debate urging the pious not to withdraw from the political process in frustration. Jessica Caspers of Thomaston, Ga., said she had many friends who retreated in 2012 — citing Jesus’ line that “My kingdom is not of this world” — but were emboldened to plunge back into politics.

“We aren’t going to get that candidate, the one we can get behind — unless we get involved,” Caspers said. “I’m not a fan of playing the victim. We have to keep saying we believe what’s in our heart is right, and we have to do that unapologetically.”

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo via SendConference.com

Jimmy Carter Campaigns For His Grandson

By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ALBANY, Ga. — Democrat Jason Carter’s campaign for George governor has unleashed a weapon that’s long been waiting in the wings: his grandfather, Jimmy Carter.

The 90-year-old former president has helped Jason Carter raise millions of dollars, and has provided him behind-the-scenes counsel. But his appearance Sunday morning at a black church in Albany was his debut on the campaign trail for his grandson’s bid to oust Gov. Nathan Deal.

The elder Carter urged congregants to cast their ballots — early voting starts Monday — to help his grandson “make Martin Luther King’s dream come true.” And he accused Republicans of seeking to deny them voting rights.

“Twelve years ago in Georgia, we had a change in governmental attitude toward the Voting Rights Act, and the right of all people to vote,” Carter said. He noted that when he was Georgia governor in the 1970s, he signed a law that designated all high school principals as voter registrars.

“We were blessed by the fact that there were very few Republicans,” he said to laughter from the crowd at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a mostly black congregation. “The point is, 12 years ago that trend was changed. And since then, the Legislature and the governor have been determined to put every obstacle in the way for African-Americans, mentally retarded people and elderly people to vote.”

He was referring to Voter ID requirements supported by Deal and his predecessor, Sonny Perdue, that supporters said would prevent fraud but opponents feared would lead to disenfranchisement. Deal and other Republicans applauded the June 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a section of the 1965 law that required Georgia to clear voting changes with federal authorities. Deal said the law had “outlived its usefulness.”

Jason Carter, an Atlanta state senator, said he would work to expand ways to register voters should he be elected in November.

“I believe in maximizing participation,” he said. “I believe that’s what democracy is all about — getting more and more people access to the ballot. We have to make sure we’re doing that and not put obstacles in the way.”

Jason Carter’s strategists have long planned to enlist the elder president in the race’s final weeks, but finding the right role for him has been challenging. A high-profile splash on the campaign trail earlier in the race could have distracted attention from his grandson — and given Deal’s camp additional ammunition.

“When he asks us to do something, we’ll make every effort to do so,” Jimmy Carter said in an interview. “I think it’s better — this is my own opinion — when he presents himself to groups in Georgia, to be there without me and Rosalynn. We’re not part of his campaign, and when we’re there, some of the news reporters pay more attention to us than they do to Jason.”

The former president acknowledges he can be a double-edged sword. Polls show the majority of Georgians give him high favorability ratings, and his famous name gave his grandson’s campaign instant fundraising heft and national attention.

But his one-term presidency remains divisive in Georgia, and Republicans are eager to tie his views on hot-button issues, such as the Middle East conflict or global warming, to his grandson’s campaign for governor.

Deal said voters aren’t going to be “unduly swayed” by the president either way.

“We can respect his opinion. But we are not a state nor a nation in which titles such as governor are inherited by virtue of your legacy,” he said at a recent campaign stop. “It is a position that’s voted on by the people of this state, and I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of influence have a significant difference.”

The former president said he’s confident he’ll help his grandson on the campaign trail far more than he may hurt him.

“I think that in balance, Georgians are still proud I was a governor who performed well and that I was a president who represented our state,” said the elder Carter. “But the only way to answer that question definitively when the returns come in in November.”

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Gubernatorial Campaign Strategy Could Pose Risk For Carter

By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — The actor William H. Macy has a problem. He’s trying to come up with a song to play at an upcoming fundraiser for Democrat Jason Carter’s campaign, and now he’s learned that former President Jimmy Carter may also attend. Suddenly, that ukulele tune has become more important. “Need courage and better rhymes,” he wrote on Twitter.

That hint last week about the Los Angeles fundraiser is the latest sign of the former president’s growing role in his grandson’s bid for governor. The elder Carter has access to a donor network and the media that few can rival. But his involvement also opens the younger Carter to attacks from conservatives who view his grandfather’s one-term presidency with disdain.

Jason Carter, a state senator from Atlanta, has long tried to veer the conversation away from his famous relative in interviews on the campaign trail, saying he’s proud of his grandfather’s legacy but the race is “about the future and not my family.” Yet as November nears, the candidate is increasingly tapping his grandfather’s network.

The elder Carter has headlined fundraisers with Democratic bigwigs in New York. He’s sent email blasts soliciting donations from the party faithful. And he’s hosting a June weekend retreat for the campaign at his Plains compound — at a cost of $20,000 a couple.

This support helps the state senator, who otherwise wouldn’t attract national press, keep pace with Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s fundraising machine. In his last campaign finance report, Carter outraised Deal by a 5-to-1 clip, thanks partly to gifts from out-of-state donors, who made up 16 percent of the total.

It’s also fuel for Carter’s critics, who have seized the chance to link the two. While the elder Carter may be personally popular in the state — the candidate’s campaign has him polling at a 59 percent favorability rating — Republicans are confident his liberal leanings only hurt his grandson in a state that is now firmly in GOP control.

“This is a rare circumstance in politics where a candidate must embrace his most prominent supporter in order to raise the money necessary to distance himself from his most prominent supporter,” said Joel McElhannon, a veteran GOP strategist.

The younger Carter often only mentions his name-brand heritage in passing at speeches and events. During a Thursday evening Democratic fundraiser, he said his family’s Georgia roots date to the 1760s and noted that his two children are 10th-generation Georgians. His granddad’s name was not invoked.

The younger Carter said Friday that his grandparents “set the standard for honesty and integrity” in politics. “That’s the legacy I’m proud to carry forward in this campaign,” he said, “especially at a time when our state is so clearly in need of leaders with integrity.”

Deal, a former House lawmaker who switched parties in the 1990s, has said he supported the elder Carter’s presidential bids in the 1970s . But he has also noted he rarely is asked about his Georgia roots, which stretch back more than a century.

“I don’t think that’s what’s important,” Deal said. “I think the candidate should stand on his own footing.”

The former president’s growing involvement will inevitably draw attention to his more strident views.

His comparison of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid has fermented a deep mistrust in Georgia’s Jewish community that still lingers. And the elder Carter’s outspoken views on international and domestic controversies could pose an ongoing dilemma for his grandson’s campaign.

Take a symposium the former president headlined in November, days after his grandson entered the race. At the event, Carter said he would counsel his grandson to follow his heart and campaign against the death penalty because he doesn’t think it would be an “overwhelmingly negative factor” in the race. (Jason Carter was compelled to issue a statement after disagreeing with his grandfather.)

To some analysts, though, Jason Carter’s pivot toward his grandfather is no surprise. Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist, said comparisons between the two are “unavoidable” and that the help is likely needed for an “all-out fundraising blitz.”

They point to other Georgia Democrats making use of their family names. Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, is using her father’s fundraising network in her quest to claim a GOP-held Senate seat. A third Democratic scion, Chris Irvin, is seeking the agriculture commissioner job once held by his grandfather, Tommy Irvin.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Georgia Governor Signs Broad Gun Rights Expansion

By Greg Bluestein, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ELLIJAY, Ga. — Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Wednesday that would vastly expand where Georgians can legally carry firearms, a proposal that has drawn heaps of praise and scorn from outside groups.

“People who follow the rules can protect themselves and their families from people who don’t follow the rules,” said Deal, adding: “The Second Amendment should never be an afterthought. It should reside at the forefronts of our minds.”

House Bill 60, which passed in the final hours of this year’s legislative session, allows Georgians to carry firearms legally in a wide range of new places, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings. A recent analysis also said it could let felons use the state’s “stand your ground” rules to claim self-defense if they feel threatened.

In an interview this week, Deal said voters shouldn’t forget what got left out of the bill. Among the controversial proposals that didn’t survive were the “campus carry” provision, which would have legalized the carrying of guns on campus, and changes that would have required houses of worship to allow guns unless leaders ban them. (Instead, religious leaders can “opt-in” to allow guns into their congregations.)

Said Deal: “There are always opportunities for people to use any piece of legislation as a political tool if they don’t like it. But there was bipartisan support for the bill. The main story that should come out of it is the final product is significantly different from earlier versions. And some of the more … interesting parts were removed.”

Critics have dubbed it the “guns everywhere” bill for its broad scope, and opponents including former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), have tried to block its passage. Supporters flooded Deal’s office with pleas to sign the measure, which the National Rifle Association called “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history.”

There was never serious doubt that he would sign it. The powerful gun rights lobby has made it their top priority, and Deal doesn’t want to give his two GOP primary challengers any opening. Even Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, his party’s nominee for governor, voted for the bill. Echoing Deal, Carter told MSNBC this week that he believed he helped “make the bill better than it was when it first started.”

Deal, for his part, tried to downplay the warnings from critics that the law could endanger police officers and lead to more violence. Said Deal: “The important premise we all should remember is these are people who have their fingerprints taken, their backgrounds checked and they have been licensed to carry a weapon. It’s not just someone walking out of the clear blue with none of those background checks. They’ve been subjected to scrutiny of the state.”

The bill, which takes effect July 1, also legalizes the use of silencers for hunting, clears the way for school staffers to carry guns in school zones and lets leaders of religious congregations choose whether to allow licensed gun holders inside. And it allows permitted gun owners to carry their weapons in government buildings — including parts of courthouses — where there is no security at the entrance.

To some groups, though, even word of Deal’s impending signature wasn’t enough. Georgia Gun Owners, one of the more strident Second Amendment groups, told members on Facebook they shouldn’t feel obligated to attend the Ellijay signing ceremony with Deal and House Speaker David Ralston. It called the duo “ethically challenged Big Government moderate Republicans.”

From the post: “Gun owners should be congratulated for your enormous pressure put on the General Assembly … but shouldn’t feel pressure to serve as a political prop for two lifetime politicians looking for political cover.”

Both Carter and Deal shouldn’t expect the national attention to let up. MSNBC and CNN ordered a TV crew up to Ellijay for live coverage of the event — a measure of the role the gun bill is likely to play the rest of the year.

State Rep. Rick Jasperse, a GOP sponsor of the bill, welcomes the attention. He told the hundreds of supporters, many wearing sidearms, to ignore the “misinformation” about the law.

“This bill is about the good guys — you guys,” he said.

Photo: Rob Bixby via Flickr