60 Voices: Jim Galloway and Greg Bluestein on covering Georgia politics

"Georgia is the nexus now."

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Jim Galloway began at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1979 working in North Fulton and Cobb counties, the launch pad for the political careers of Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson, and Paul Coverdell. In 2002 he began writing the Political Insider column, providing context to the intrigue, infighting, and ideas at the Georgia Capitol. He retired from the AJC in 2021.

Greg Bluestein is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (and Georgia’s, really) chief political reporter. Bluestein previously covered Hurricane Katrina, executions, and politics in the Southeast for the Associated Press.

JG: Without Atlanta, Georgia is Alabama or South Carolina. Truly. Metro Atlanta is the economic melting pot. Charles Bullock wrote something late last year, arguing that we have long divided up the South into Deep South and Border States—Civil War holdover stuff. He argued that we have to drop that. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia are now in a single camp. The difference is economic growth and importation of new residents, whether they’re foreign or domestic. That’s the big difference, I think.

GB: We’ve also got these national superstars. We have these transcendent figures who can snap their fingers and get on national TV. And we’ve added to that core group of people in the past few months. You think back to 2014. Jason Carter could make a sweeping policy proposal and barely crack local front pages. Now, Stacey Abrams could be on Meet the Press and every Sunday talk show every weekend if she wanted. Brian Kemp, Brad Raffensperger, Geoff Duncan, Gabriel Sterling. We’ve got a core of superstars, from both parties, who are getting unbelievable attention because of what happened in the past few months. No other state of Georgia’s size seems to be this sort of nexus of superstars.

JG: And the thing is, they’re young, mostly. Raffensperger and I are the same age, so exclude us. Kemp is in his 50s, Warnock and Duncan are in their 40s; so is Abrams. Ossoff and Bee Nguyen are in their 30s. These next two decades are going to be just incredible to watch.

GB: The elections in November and January reinforced that [theory that Georgia is now purple]. I think it’s unfair to say “Georgia is two states—Atlanta and everyone else.” It used to be. Today, it’s probably four or five different states. You look at the Black Belt and that area in southwest Georgia voting Democrat. Northwest Georgia rural voters are voting in different patterns than South Georgia rural voters. You got metro Atlanta and the dynamic suburban transformation. We’re wrestling with our past all the time. You saw the results in November and January, but the Democrats were able to build that coalition that could be enduring and could go the way of Virginia. We will probably be like Florida. Not necessarily being Republican, but being more competitive—1 or 2 percentage points. We’re at a crossroads where we could become solidly blue like Virginia if Republicans don’t play their cards right. As you’re heading into 2022, Democrats are just loaded. They’re looking to sweep. They’ve got a ticket that will probably be led by Warnock and Abrams. There’s already talk about all sorts of down-ticket candidates. And they look like a juggernaut going in. And Republicans are still divided over yesterday’s problems.

JG: In 2018, in September, October, Brian Kemp was doing the Sonny Perdue/David Perdue trek through South Georgia trying to gin up that vote. Sometime in October, he was in some fish fry place. Right behind him was a Confederate battle flag. Didn’t bother him at all. Shift to 2020. Biden has made it down to Warm Springs. Governor Brian Kemp was at a protest in Manchester, Georgia, just down the road. There was a guy with the Confederate flag. He was booted out. Just shunted away. It was, to me, one of those inflection moments when Republicans understand that they can’t run the way that they have been for the last dozen years or so.

GB: Georgia is the nexus now. We are the premier and newest battleground state in the nation. We were the centerpiece and battleground for the misinformation wars and President Trump’s interventions. Now, we’re the focal point for elections legislation and the criminal prosecution against Trump. We’ve kind of got it all still going for us.

JG: In some ways, we’re kind of like high school sports reporters. We see the talent before it gets to where it’s gonna go. You could be in the Senate chamber and watch Tom Price and know there was a congressman there. It wasn’t quite as obvious with Phil Gingrey. But the first time I sat down and talked with Stacey Abrams, I was stunned. She is so astute and has got such a great political head on her.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

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