Nathan Deal: The Man Who Doesn’t Lose

During his final campaign, he sat down with Atlanta magazine for an interview
Photograph by Fernando Decillis
Photograph by Fernando Decillis

Since 1980, Nathan Deal has run for office sixteen times—six state Senate campaigns, nine congressional campaigns, and one gubernatorial campaign—and never lost. One wonders if he even prepares concession speeches anymore. The only election when he didn’t prevail was for president of the Gainesville Jaycees (seriously!) back in the early 1970s, which is before Jason Carter, his opponent in this year’s race for governor, was even born.

At seventy-two, Deal is now in the waning weeks of what will be his final campaign. As governor, he succeeded Sonny Perdue, whose victory against Roy Barnes in 2002 was just the most visible sign of the state Democratic party’s plunge into electoral oblivion. Today, the Democrats are revitalized, thanks in part to Carter, the state senator who is hoping his energy and ideas (and family name) will make up for having just four years in elected office.

On August 13, Deal spoke with Atlanta magazine in the library of the executive mansion on West Paces Ferry Road. Earlier that day, he’d toured Chamblee Charter High School in DeKalb County. Last year, when the DeKalb school district—the third biggest in the state—faced the possibility of losing its accreditation thanks in part to an utterly dysfunctional school board, Deal invoked his executive powers to replace a majority of the board members. During his Chamblee tour, he mentioned his desire to propose new education initiatives—such as offering students ungraded classes “to never have the stigma of having failed a grade”—if he wins a second term.

Besides education, Deal discussed transit, his relationship with Mayor Kasim Reed, his philosophical objection to Obamacare, and how dire warnings about a “megalopolis” stretching from Raleigh to Atlanta are nothing more than the left’s attempt to have government dictate how and where people live.

For as long as anyone can remember, the state and the city of Atlanta have been at odds, even back when Georgia was almost universally a blue state. But the relationship between you and Kasim Reed has been one of the most productive between an incumbent mayor and governor that we’ve seen in . . . maybe ever. Is that era of tension over for good?
I hope it is, because I think that would be good for the state long-term—if we could stop accentuating the differences between our capital city and the rest of the state. We do have a very diverse state, but when you have issues that are so large, such as the Port of Savannah project, I think people [across] the state recognize that having the help of a powerful mayor of the city of Atlanta benefits them as well.

At some point, maybe even by the time people read this, Mayor Reed may feel compelled to endorse your opponent. Given your relationship with him over the past three years, how does that make you feel?
I take great comfort in the fact that he has publicly acknowledged that I’ve been a great governor, and I think he will continue to acknowledge that. I don’t want to try to get involved in his politics and his party politics in particular, okay? We both understand that. But to have him as a personal friend, and to have him as the mayor of the city of Atlanta saying that the governor’s doing a great job and that we work well together? That’s about as close to an endorsement as you can get.

Let’s talk about Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, whatever. How do you refer to it?
[Laughs] I don’t talk about it! I talk about the second one.

A lot of people, and a lot of them from outside the state certainly, said that the horrible gridlock was inevitable, given our reliance upon the automobile. If transportation is a key to economic development, how does that perception—a perception that is, to a degree, a reality—hinder our economic development?
Some of those same folks from out of state didn’t have a whole lot to say when they got shut down with the snowstorms that came later in the year after ours, and they were in gridlock as well. They wanted to point to the South and say we don’t know how to drive. Well, nobody knows how to drive on ice, and that’s what we had. Your point, though, about whether that indicates a need for more diversification as to transportation modes? That’s an isolated incident. I don’t think you could ever base justification for very expensive, difficult-to-sustain rail transportation on one or two ice storms—no matter where they happened. It has to be a sustained demand that can justify the expenditures that you have to make on it. Because just expanding MARTA, for example, that’s a huge expenditure just to expand the line several miles. I think the potential is there for MARTA moving into areas like Clayton County, since Clayton County has shut down their bus system. But before you see any expansion of that significantly, it’s going to take the general public’s attitude that they want it. And right now, for a good many people—even in the metropolitan Atlanta area—that is not their attitude.

The demand isn’t there yet?
I don’t think the demand is there yet. I think we would all like to theoretically think that, “Oh, that would be a good thing to do.” And then, when you start saying, “Are you willing to pay this, this, and this to build it, and more importantly, are you willing to pay it on a consistent basis to sustain it?,” a lot of the support evaporates at that point.

What about yourself, personally? As a Georgian and as someone who has lived in the metro region for a long time, is more diversification in terms of modes of transit something you wish for?
I have never had a lifestyle that would utilize that, other than maybe when I was in Gainesville, and if I wanted to come down to a Braves game and then I couldn’t ride MARTA to anywhere close to the Braves stadium.

Within a mile.
Well, that’s a long way to walk. [Note: There’s a free shuttle from Five Points station to Turner Field.] I think the things that we are doing and the moves that we are making are really more compatible with dealing with those kinds of issues, whether it be the reversible lanes that we have—the first project being south of Atlanta on 75, from about Eagles Landing on in toward Atlanta, and then the reversible lane projects that are on the so-called northwest corridor on I-75 and 575. It takes awhile to build those projects, but they’re in the process of doing that right now. But I don’t think even that [constituent] pressure is going to be such that you’re going to convince Cobb County to allow a MARTA line to come in. Now, the new Braves stadium might put a little different light on that. I don’t know. But that’s somebody else’s politics and not mine.

It sounds like what you’re saying is things have to get worse before they get better.
That’s generally the way that you arrive at making difficult decisions when you have to have the public support for it. There has to be demand for it.

In the wake of the T-SPLOST defeat in 2012 [when voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1 percent sales tax that would have provided funding for $8 billion in regional transportation improvements], did you come to any conclusions about what this region needs versus what it will agree to?
First of all, I don’t think that should be taken as a rejection of the concept of regionalism. The format of that T-SPLOST vote was voted and put in place before I became governor. And I think everybody recognized that there were some inherent problems with that, whether it be “I don’t like being in a region with such and such other county because I don’t think we have much in common” or smaller counties thinking that larger counties dominated in terms of the project list, etc. Then you get down to individual projects. People in one county would like the project list, but they didn’t care for the projects that others wanted to include. It was not an approach that was born out of the necessity of the projects themselves. The projects were the inducement to get voters in various counties to vote for it.

A better illustration of regionalism is what happened at the Baxter facility, which is the product of a multicounty development authority recognizing that this was a huge new industry that was going to provide thousands of jobs, and that if they worked together, they could make it happen. [Note: Baxter International is building a $1 billion plasma-based treatment manufacturing plant near Covington. The facility will employ 1,500, and the company received $80 million in state incentives.] There was a commonality that they could all agree on and not have individual reasons not to be involved in it.

What you described—those individual transportation projects as an inducement to get the vote out—sounds like pork.
Any time you’re putting special money into a special project, if you use the federal definition, yes. That would be a pork project and an earmark.

So to what degree is the Baxter model transferable to transportation?
I think it is transferable in a lot of ways, as long as the ultimate goal has some benefit to everybody involved. And when you got into the T-SPLOST project list, some of them did overlap from one jurisdiction to another. But some of them were peculiar only to one county or one part of a county. And it was difficult, I think, to convince people in the other portions of the region that they should vote for it because some of those projects were large-dollar projects. Now, I know that there have been suggestions—in fact, there was legislation, [though] it did not pass—to go back and to make the regions smaller or to let counties pick their partners with whom they would have more commonality. That has some merit to it because the likelihood that you could get something passed might be greater. But you have this factionalization taking effect when you start doing that.


Deal and Reed at a joint conference advocating for T-SPLOST in 2012.

Photograph by the AP Images/Bob Andres


Let’s turn to education. Over the past twelve years or so, if you look at Georgia’s Quality of Basic Education formula, we’ve fallen short of funding our education budget to the formula’s goal by almost $8 billion. Is this kind of austerity the new normal?
[Chuckles] Well, no. The way you interpret it is: Ask the question, “Has it ever been fully funded?” No. The answer is no, right? Past governors have manipulated it so it did not appear that there was anything like an austerity to it.

So the formula is an unreasonable metric?
I think it’s outdated and needs to be revisited. If we were driving children around on 1985 school buses, people would think there’s something wrong with us. I’ve said it before: We’ve brought on board a former school superintendent who’s working in our office of planning and budget, and he is specifically looking at that—how do we get the most for the money? Because there’s going to be a finite amount of money. You can try to come up with gimmicks or any kind of formulas you might have, but ultimately, during my four budget cycles, almost 54 percent of all spending has gone to education. And that is one of the higher percentages of overall spending in this state that we’ve had. And I think maybe consistently, for four years—well, in fact, I added it up myself—the total expenditure of education during my four budget cycles is cumulatively larger than any other four-year cycle for a governor in terms of the total funding for education. And we were able to do that in difficult economic times. So do we need a formula? Yes. There needs to be. But the [current] formula has some serious flaws in it, and we shouldn’t be held to a standard that we’re never going to achieve, nor one that if you were writing it now, you would not write that as the standard. That’s the problem.

There are other yardsticks. Student achievement is the most obvious one. And just as transportation is a key part of economic development, certainly so is education when companies are looking to enter this market or expand here. Eighth grade math test scores: We rank fortieth out of fifty states. High school graduation rate: We rank forty-seventh. How can these stats not be an obstacle?
That’s certainly not anything that we brag about, and it’s something that we try to do something to change the dynamic of. But the reality is, money alone does not change that dynamic. Some of the systems that spend the most per child have some of the worst test scores and some of the highest dropout rates. So it’s not just money that makes the difference. There are structural reforms that I believe need to occur, and that’s where we have to depend on educators who have been in the systems and know what works and what doesn’t work. I think a lot of it depends on giving flexibility to systems to decide how they think the delivery mechanism works best for them, and that, too, will depend on where they are and the nature of the students in their system. I am all for flexibility, but I am for accountability as well—and how do you mesh those two? That’s the real test of finding a formula that will work.

So how do we get there?
I think we get there by doing what I’ve done, and that is to put some of the best minds in public education to work on it, and to consult with others in the public arena now, and find out what they think works, and try to build that into what we authorize spending for. That’s not an easy process. I mean, it’s a difficult process because local politics gets involved sometimes and keeps it from happening.

Is there a state that you look to as a potential model, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel?
Not really. As you know, we had a crisis situation with the DeKalb County schools, and one that we had a very narrow window of having the ability to act under our existing law; that was because they had been put on probation for accreditation purposes. The statute authorized me to replace board members on the school board, which I did—six of the nine. Fortunately, they were able to get the probation removed, and they’re now back where they’re not under that threat—short-term, at least. The local school boards have to be held accountable for the results that they’re producing with the dollars they’re getting. That’s why we’ve made slow progress in this with the grading system we’ve now put in place, so that we now can hold schools accountable as to what their scores are. It’s a cumulative component that makes up those scores. By having that kind of information available to parents, I think they will demand better results. And that’s that kind of demand within education that will foster change.

Your campaign has talked about the 250,000 jobs you’ve added over the course of your administration.
Make it 294,000.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute issued a report that said the jobs that have been created during the recovery, by and large, have been concentrated among the low-wage and the high-wage jobs. But the middle-class jobs—those paying between $32,000 and $58,000 a year—have come back the slowest. The report went on to say that there are now 138,000 fewer mid-wage jobs in Georgia than there were in 2007. Is Georgia leaving the middle class behind?
If you look at where we lost jobs, primarily it was in the construction industry, and that’s where you would find those construction workers that made up that middle class and middle income. We are seeing construction become relevant again. As I travel around, I’m seeing more subdivisions and more individual houses. But I think the point that everybody needs to keep in mind is a job is better than no job. So when we’re approaching almost 300,000 new private-sector jobs in less than four years, that’s something we ought to all be proud of. In fact, I believe the labor commissioner told me a week or so ago that based on last year’s job growth, Georgia ranked fifth—and that’s just cumulative numbers. And that the other four states—I didn’t see who they were—but he says they’re all larger states than us. So in terms of cumulative numbers of new jobs, ranking fifth for a state that’s about tenth in population is pretty good progress. Would I like to see more jobs in the middle class? Obviously. Many of those are small entrepreneurs, and we are seeing a renewal of them. We’re seeing them expand. We’re seeing new people come and open businesses. But a lot of the downward pressure we’re seeing isn’t unique to Georgia. It’s something all across the country. And you can start with the Affordable Care Act. We’re running into employers who say, “Well, you know, I really wanted to expand my business, but I don’t want to get over that fifty-employee mark because I’m then put in a different category with regard to obligations under the Affordable Care Act.” Others are just saying, “Well, the costs associated with the mandates are more than I’m willing to take on.” So that’s a policy restriction, and there are certainly other federal policies that I think are impeding growth. If you talk to most bankers, they will tell you that it’s almost impossible for them to make a loan to a middle-income business owner. If they don’t have any place to go for credit, then they can’t grow, they can’t expand, they can’t give anybody else a job.

Voters will be asked to decide on a possible constitutional amendment that would cap the state income tax at 6 percent. How do you feel about that?
I certainly don’t have any intention of proposing that we raise the income tax above the 6 percent. What does cause me some concern is that one of the major bond rating agencies indicated that this was an issue that they are watching. Because if states float bonds and the economy turns south, what is your ability to raise the revenue to pay them off? That’s the only real fact-based comment that I’ve heard. But I don’t think we would ever, in the foreseeable future, entertain going above that 6 percent. And I think that’s something the people of this state ought to have a say about.

I feel like the word tax now is to politicians what murder is to regular folks—that it’s a dirty word we must avoid at all costs. Yet at the same time, we expect certain things. We expect the roads we’re on to be paved. We expect public safety. As the manager of the state, how do you square these competing demands in terms of what people want versus what they will actually pay for?
That is the constant challenge government faces at every level. That’s why, for example, when the Affordable Care Act was being sold to Congress and to the public, they were very careful—in fact, prohibited anybody from calling the costs associated with it a tax. Ironically, when the United States Supreme Court got the case, they said, “The only way we can hold it constitutional is under the taxing authority of the United States government, and therefore it is a tax. And if it’s not a tax, we’ll strike it down.” You can call it whatever you want to. But does the public support the cost when considering the benefits they receive from it? And unless you can convince the public that that is the exchange they’re willing to make, then you’re going to have great difficulty in a legislative body ever getting the votes you need.

The flip side of that coin is, does the public understand the ramifications of not paying whatever fee or tax that is? I think about transportation. You vetoed automatic inflation-adjusted gas taxes three of the last four years. So obviously, there are ramifications for something like that.
I think timing on it has a lot to do with it. I still feel like we’re a rebounding economy, and that’s the reason I felt like it was appropriate not to let those increased taxes go ahead into place, because people do pay attention at the pump as to how much per gallon they’re having to pay. And it makes a difference, in terms of their attitude about it, but that’s the trade-off. That’s what makes leadership and government sometimes very difficult, but I’m willing to make those decisions, and I don’t flip-flop around about it.

What is your biggest single objection to Obamacare?
It moves us closer to government control of one of the major cost factors in our economy, and that is healthcare. Anybody that knows anything about federal finances will tell you that if we’re ever going to get our federal budget balanced, we have to slow down the growth of entitlement programs. And yet this bill provides the mechanism for one of the largest, if not the largest, expansion of an entitlement program we’ve seen in a very long time, since Medicaid and Medicare came into place in the first place. That’s probably pretty high on my list of why. It also intervenes in the patient-doctor relationship. It intervenes in the private enterprise marketplace of insurance. We’ve never had a federal insurance commission. We do have a state insurance commissioner; he’s a constitutional officer under our state constitution. Most other states have equivalent positions there. And the reason that we’ve had it at the state levels and not at the federal level is, it’s been an area that the federal government has never tried to regulate before. It’s always been a state issue. That is totally usurped.

Gallup polled states about insurance coverage last year versus this year in the wake of Obamacare. Last year, 21.4 percent of Georgians said they had no health insurance. And this year, it’s slightly less: 20.2. But then if you look at Arkansas and Kentucky, who have adopted aspects of Obamacare, they’ve cut their uninsured rolls almost by half. So with the evident success of that program in those states, is there something that makes you think that we should reconsider our own stance on that?
If you were to see the information that they have sent to us, in terms of the mandatory enrollment in our existing Medicaid program—not talking about an expanded one—they are sending us people that we’ve already determined were not eligible. I just have to wonder about Arkansas and Kentucky. Who all have they enrolled? I mean, are these people folks that truly qualify for federal subsidies? You want to talk about cost; how long can the taxpayers of this country afford to continue those kind of subsidies and ever hope to get the federal budget back in balance?

So are you saying that you suspect the recipients may be gaming the system in some way?
I don’t know. I just know that based on the information that we got about what they consider mandatory enrollment in our state Medicaid program, many of these, I’m told, are people that we had screened earlier and determined to be ineligible, and yet they send the names to us anyway. I think the screening mechanism’s got some serious flaws in it.

If the screening were toughened up, would you be more receptive to the idea?
No, I think philosophically, I’m still opposed to it on the grounds of expanding an entitlement program.

Not long ago, a Department of the Interior study predicted a “megalopolis” that would, one day, stretch from Atlanta to Raleigh, maybe even as far west as Birmingham. And that’s just in fifty years, unless there are some significant changes to land development. Does this prospect of over-development and congestion concern you?
These are concerns that folks who have agendas that do not favor this kind of growth find objectionable. What they’re saying is: They want governments, either federal or state, to put regulations in place to control where people live and where they work. That’s contrary, in my opinion, to the freedom that our country is founded on. I just don’t believe in that kind of governmental micromanagement of people’s lives. Now, do we have to adjust to the decisions that individuals make about where they want to live and where they want to work? Absolutely. Because government is expected to supply those basic needs of transportation, education, and so forth. But we don’t—or should not, in my opinion—try to control those decisions by people through the actions of government. When you start doing that, you’re getting very close to governmental models that in other parts of the world, over the centuries, have proven to be very, very unsuccessful. And that is micromanagement of people’s lives, and where they live, and how they work, and where they work.

There seems to be agreement among census experts that the state of Georgia will be majority-minority in the next five to ten years. And so as a Republican, what does the party need to do to cement its hold in Georgia and bring those people into the fold?
We have to diversify our membership; we have to include more minorities. And I think it’s simply a matter of letting the ideas that Republicans adhere to be known in a very clear fashion. And when we do that, I don’t think you see party lines break down along the lines that they currently break down, because there are many in what we regard as the minority community who do believe in smaller government. They believe in more freedom. They believe in more choices for family units to make and not government imposing it on them. They believe in right to life, by and large, whether you’re talking about the African American community or whether you’re talking about the Hispanic community. They are very much aligned with what are considered to be core Republican principles, but their voting patterns have not necessarily followed that same pattern. So I think what we have to do is let people know who we are and what we believe in and who we stand for. And I think when that happens, people begin to say, “Well, you know, maybe I’m a Republican. Maybe that’s the way I should vote.” Because we all get locked into, “This is the way we’ve done it in the past.” One of the most difficult decisions, politically, I ever made was when I changed parties, and it was made on a philosophical basis that the party I was aligned with at that time was Democrat. Their policies and ideas they were advocating—they were coming to me and asking me to vote for them when I campaigned against them. And so I decided on a personal basis that I would realign my affiliation with a party that was closer to the things I believed in. Now, that’s a decision that was made by an elected official. It has to occur on an individual basis, and that’s hard to do because you have to get the information out.

When you made that transition in 1995, was that because the party had changed or because you yourself had changed?
I went back and looked at the campaign literature that I had campaigned on when I ran for Congress in 1992 and when I ran for reelection as a Democrat in 1994. And the policies that I advocated, that I stood for, were not policies the Democrats were asking me to vote for. So I did not feel like I had changed.

What do you want your legacy as a governor to be, whether or not you serve four more years?
Well, first of all, that’s not a priority for me to even think about. I don’t think about that kind of thing. The only thing I’ve said to anybody is, “Don’t name a prison for me.”

That seems fair.
[Legacy] really is not my concern. I want to have a legacy on a lot of areas. I’m the son of two public school teachers. I want to have a great legacy on public education. And if given the opportunity for the next four years, I will have that legacy. I want to have a legacy of being the jobs governor for Georgia. I think we’re very well on our way to establishing that—probably the single largest influx of new jobs of any four years that any governor has had. I want to be the governor that has a legacy of innovation, and we’re seeing that. We’re seeing high-tech companies coming into our state, home offices coming here, and they’re coming from everywhere. I want to be a governor that has a legacy of diversified employment opportunities for our state. And who would have ever thought that we’d be the number three state in the nation for the film industry? And when all of these things happen, what it does is it gives more opportunities to young people who are in our state who might, in the past, have had to leave our state to find a job. So my concern is, let’s make the things that state government does, let’s do them exceptionally well. Whether it’s education at the K-12 level, at the technical colleges, or at the colleges and universities, let’s do those things exceptionally well. We don’t have the natural energy sources that drive the economies of some of our Western neighbors. So we have to diversify. I hope my legacy will be that we explored the possibilities and used the opportunities to lead the South in that kind of diversification.

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.