By Maria Saporta
Top Georgia business leaders expressed “frustration and disappointment” over the current slate of declared Republican candidates running for governor.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle attacked Delta Air Lines, the largest employer in the state of Georgia. The state was about to vote to rescind a tax on jet fuel when Delta announced it was ending a discount offered to members of the National Rifle Association (only 13 NRA members had taken advantage of the discount according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Cagle then vowed to kill the tax break for Delta and the other airlines unless Delta brought back the discount to NRA members.
And Cagle was not alone. Virtually all the Republican candidates for governor got onboard the anti-Delta band wagon.
Even Gov. Nathan Deal, who has helped make Georgia No. 1 for business, wasn’t pleased with the “antics” by his fellow Republicans.
Insiders say the Republican response to the Delta/NRA position has made it almost certain that Atlanta and Georgia have been taken off the shortlist as a possible location for Amazon’s second headquarters – a plum that would bring a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs to the chosen community.
The story has received widespread attention in national media circles – including the Washington Post – a newspaper owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
And if the Delta/NRA issue had not been enough to kill our economic development hopes, the pledge by the major Republican candidates for governor to push for religious liberty legislation didn’t help us. Then there’s the legislative effort to give private adoption agencies receiving public funds
the option to not place children with same-sex parents.
All those legislative position are making business leaders cringe. They have sought to convince the world that Georgia is a pro-business state that is welcoming to all.
In a dozen or so conversations with top state business leaders, who spoke as long as they were not identified, Georgia can and should do better.
“The Republican Party is not the party of business anymore,” one business leader said. “Business leadership around the state is not happy about the Republican Party’s relentless focus on divisive social issues.”
Business leaders were especially upset with Cagle, who is considered to be the Republican frontrunner.
“Delta is the largest employer in the state, for God’s sake,” one leader said. “Then Casey Cagle goes on Fox News asking Delta to reinstate the discount that served a total of 13 NRA members. That’s grotesque. Over and over again, Casey Cagle has shown he’s a total wimp. He doesn’t have any principles whatsoever.”
As a frontrunner, Cagle has received support from the business community. But several business leaders said their support was less than enthusiastic, especially after his Delta position.
“Any of the candidates who presume to have the support of the business community should be challenged,” one leader said. “It has eroded. That’s how people feel.”
That leader said the business community is “unified” over the troubling political field.
Another key leader agreed.
“The business community is bothered that they are trying to legislate morality and that they are not governing,” he said. “There is no candidate currently on the Republican side that has the business community excited.
“There are some state leaders who just assumed that the business community was so far invested in Casey that they weren’t going to run,” he continued. “But that’s just not true. The problem is that there’s not alternative out there.”
But there is still time.
Candidates have until Friday to qualify to run for Georgia’s constitutional offices, including the gubernatorial race.
“The business community needs to put up or shut up,” one leader said, adding that he would be willing to become finance chair if a business leader got into the race..
So who could fill that role?
After having several conversations with business leaders, several names were mentioned – most of whom had widespread appeal.
- Frank Blake, retired CEO of the Home Depot who currently serves as board chairman of Delta Air Lines;
- Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Cousins Properties who has been a well-respected civic and business leader for decades;
- Bob Voyles, a long-time developer (now with his own company – Seven Oaks) who has been a leader on transportation and quality growth issues;
- John Rice, retired vice chairman of General Electric who is back in metro Atlanta, where he played an important civic role for years;
- Philip Wilheit Sr., president of Wilheit Packaging and Marketing Images of Gainesville who is one of Gov. Deal’s closest advisors;
- Kessel Stelling, CEO of Columbus-based Synovus Financial Corp. who currently is chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce;
- Vince Dooley, the retired football coach and athletic director of the University of Georgia who has strong business relationships;
- Joe Whitley, an attorney with Baker Donelson who was the first general counsel for the U.S.. Department of Homeland Security and a former U.S. district attorney;
- Kelly Loeffler, an executive with Intercontinental Exchange (owner of the New York Stock Exchange) who is married to Jeff Sprecher, the CEO and is a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream; and
- John Brock, retired CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, which is now Coca-Cola European Partners.
“I would vote for any of them,” one leader said when asked to comment on the possible names.
Some business leaders also said they also had encouraged David Ralston, the speaker of the House, to enter the race. But several also mentioned that Ralston should run for re-election because he would be needed to provide continuity at the State Capitol.
What nearly all business leaders did agree to was that Georgia needs a Republican candidate who will continue the kind of leadership that Gov. Deal has provided – strong fiscal management who has been a strong business advocate and a social moderate when it comes to issues like religious liberty.
As one business leader told me: “I hope somebody reads your column and decides to run.”
Time is of the essence.
Note to readers: This week’s column was supposed to be about the massacre of trees at Bobby Jones Golf Course. But because qualifying is this week, I decided to write this column instead. Be on the look out for my Bobby Jones column next week.