Nathan Deal’s New Ethics Problem(s)

My political mentor down in Georgia used to say: “Republicans in this state could screw up a one-car funeral.” Now that was back in the days when the Georgia GOP was regularly missing opportunities to achieve the kind of breakthroughs their brethren had long made in other southern states. But even now, with Republicans having run Georgia like a private preserve for about a decade, there seems to persist this tendency towards unforced errors.

That’s evident again today as incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal finds himself in the midst of loud allegations that his staff pressured a supposedly independent ethics commission to bury charges against Deal’s 2010 campaign.

It’s actually more convoluted and troubling than the sentence above suggests. The ethics commission went through multiple lawsuits in 2012 over claims by employees (including a former director) that they were being pressured, harrassed and even fired for failing to “quietly” resolve the complaints against Deal. Now the current director, previously assumed to be Deal’s catspaw in the brouhaha, has herself released a 2012 memo alleging highly inappropriate pressure and threats from the governor’s office to make the ethics problems “go away,” apparently fearing a second “purge” of the agency. She’s seeking “whistleblower” protection and beginning to sing for the media.

For his part Deal has gone into what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls “emergency communications mode,” and is making the rather risible claim that the latest protests against pressure from his staff prove the commission was independent of undue influence from him all along!

Needless to say, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter is all over this, and is demanding an investigation by the Attorney General. And what was previously a close race where Deal was generally assumed to have the upper hand is now getting really interesting (coincidentally, Carter outraised Deal in second quarter fundaising by a pretty significant margin).

Perhaps the underlying problem for Deal is that what sounded like relatively minor campaign finance law violations will now get a much closer look. Either there was something toxic in the records that did indeed get hushed up, or Team Deal is prone to Nixonian bully-boy tactics that are troubling in themselves.

I’ll be heading back to Georgia this weekend for a fortnight, and had thought next Tuesday’s runoffs would end any interesting political developments for a while. Maybe not.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.