By Maria Saporta
The Metro Atlanta Chamber hosted both major candidates for governor at their executive committee meeting Thursday morning to hear their visions for Georgia if they are elected.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, spoke to the group of business and civic leaders from 7:40-8:10 a.m.; former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, addressed the group from 8:20-8:50 a.m.
Both candidates were rushing to other appointments, and they were unable to share what they discussed with the business community.
“I thought it went really well,” Kemp said as the elevator doors shut on the 34th floor of the 191 Peachtree building, where the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s offices are located.
Abrams also quickly left. But both candidates did agree to have their picture taken in front of the Metro Atlanta Chamber logo.
In conversations with several business leaders, it sounded as though the meeting, which is closed to the press, was an opportunity to hear from the top people running for governor.
“It was good to hear the different views,” said Dave Abney, CEO of United Parcel Service Inc. (NYSE: UPS) and chair-elect of the Metro Atlanta. “All the different issues came up. The candidates expressed their views, and we expressed ours. Economic development was one of the issues we discussed.”
Paul Bowers, CEO of Georgia Power and a former chairman of MAC, chaired the meeting because the current chairman, Russell Stokes, an executive with General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), was unable to attend.
Bowers sent the following comment in a text: “Both Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams did a great job speaking to the Metro Atlanta Chamber this morning, and both clearly recognize the role of the business community and articulated their respective vision for healthy business and economic growth for the state of Georgia.”
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL), who has been vocal about religious liberty legislation and making sure Georgia is a welcoming state to everyone, simply said: “It was a good meeting.”
When Delta decided to no longer give a discount to NRA members, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle killed legislation that would have restored a tax break for Delta. Cagle lost to Kemp in the Republican run-off.
Carol Tomé, the chief financial officer for the Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD) and a former chair of MAC, said both candidates stayed with their platforms – which she has now heard on three different occasions.
“They were both engaged,” Tomé said. “I’m looking forward to the debates. I’ve seen both candidates separately three times. I think it will be really good to see them together.”
Kemp and Abrams will hold their first televised debate on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. It is part of the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series, and it will air on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson was pleased with the conversations with each candidate.
“It’s great that the Metro Atlanta Chamber was able to bring the two candidates and hear their thoughts about Georgia’s future,” Peterson said.
When asked how he felt about how the candidates would govern if elected, Peterson responded: “I always feel good about the future. I’m optimistic about the state. Part of our statewide mission is to build the economy of Georgia.”
In background conversations with people who were in the meeting, MAC business leaders did not advocate for a particular agenda.
Kemp began by sharing comments on his platform, and then he opened it up for questions. One business leader asked him about the potential passage of religious liberty legislation, a pledge he had made during the primaries. Kemp said he would support a religious liberty bill that would mirror the language that’s part of federal law.
Both candidates spoke well of Gov. Nathan Deal’s last eight years.
But Kemp said it was time to move on beyond criminal justice reform. He said his priority would be to keep families safe from drug cartels and gangs.
When Abrams met with the group, she immediately opened it up to questions from MAC board members, although she did give a short closing statement.
She focused on her experience as the House Minority leader, and emphasized how she has been able to work in a bipartisan manner. She spoke of the need for the state to nurture small and mid-sized businesses in addition to going after big economic development deals.
Abrams also highlighted her interest to expand Medicaid in the state. She also spoke out against potential religious freedom legislation.
Kemp also talked about health care, but his focus was on helping rural hospitals. He also spoke about the state’s graduation rates and the need for more workforce development.
Penny McPhee, president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, said she was glad the Chamber invited both candidates to speak.
“It was good to hear from them,” McPhee said.
Both candidates and their campaigns were asked to talk about the meeting with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and how they would work with the business community.
“I am the only candidate in this race to have earned an A-rating from the (Georgia) Chamber of Commerce and the ‘Friend of Labor’ award in the same year for the same work,” Abrams wrote in a statement.
“I am the only candidate with bold, concrete plans to create long-term, high-wage jobs and support businesses in every county – jobs in a variety of fields and sectors including construction, transportation, and agriculture,” Abrams continued. “Unlike my opponent, I will never sign discriminatory legislation that keeps critical drivers of our economy like the film industry from doing business in our state.”
As of press time, the Kemp campaign had not provided a statement. We will update this story if he sends us one.
The business community has been cautious during this year’s election with many companies donating to both candidates.
It is a stark contrast to the elections that were held in 2002 when the business community strongly supported then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat. When Sonny Perdue, a Republican, won, it was a big surprise to not only Perdue, but to the business community and the entire state.
Because he felt he had been snubbed by the Atlanta business community during his campaign, Perdue was estranged from many in the business community for most of his eight years in office. The Metro Atlanta Chamber has played it safe politically ever since.