Wanted: a strong business leader to run for governor

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).

State capitol

The State Capitol (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.”

Blake, Waller and Bastian

The Atlanta directors at Delta Air Lines’ 2017 annual meeting – Chairman Frank Blake; Coca-Cola’s Kathy Waller and CEO Ed Bastian (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal fields questions about Amazon at a an economic development announcement (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“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.

They included:

  • 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.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

17 replies
  1. Scott Crooks says:

    When taxes are raised on a business, that business passes their increased cost on to their customers. So anyone taking a flight out of Atlanta, no matter the airline, (every airline out of Atlanta buys fuel here) can thank Mr. Cagle for the higher airline ticket prices. At the end of the day we the taxpayer are being penalized and paying the tax for 13 people, who lost a discount. Just so Mr. Cagle can grandstand in front of the media. A true republican is a fiscal conservative, who cuts taxes for all.Report

    Reply
  2. Ray Glier says:

    Georgia needed this column two weeks ago when there was time to twist arms. The Delta scrape is not the first misstep for Cagle or the white men in the legislature that want to impose their social values on everybody else. This is a powerful story for the state. A pro-business, common sense, non-demagogue could count on a war chest for a political run for Gov. But….it’s wishful thinking this state could have a non-partisan Gov who would work under a big tent and unite urban and rural, white and black, young and old and rep the whole state. If you really want Amazon do not elect Cagle.Report

    Reply
  3. Dana Blankenhorn says:

    If, as the story implies, Amazon has taken Atlanta off its shortlist because of the Delta story, it tells me neither Atlanta nor Georgia wants the present political balance within the state changed in any way. Amazon in Atlanta would mean a white mayor, and likely a Democratic governor. Notice the quiet around Atlanta City Hall over this.Report

    Reply
    • brainstar8 says:

      Amazon probably never had Atlanta on its short, short list. Seriously, why would they? An acquaintance who interviewed for a top-level job with Amazon in Seattle about four months ago thinks, at the time, the lean was toward Boston. This has been the general thinking almost since day one. Does Cagle deserve to be governor? No. But as a long-time resident of the City, I’m down with any changes that can be made for the better at City Hall. Bottoms is likely not this needed change.Report

      Reply
  4. James Reese says:

    Crossing my fingers for a nonpartisan pro-business and pro-people LEADER to come forth. I will admit Nathan Deal has done a remarkable job though I didn’t support him. We need someone with LEADERSHIP skills and acumen to take this state forward.

    Atlanta’s interests are Georgia’s interests and vice versa.🤞🏽Report

    Reply
  5. John Thompson says:

    What a self-serving ridiculous article. All Delta had to do was wait a week and the tax payoff would have gone through without a hitch. Do you honestly believe that any Republican that goes against the NRA would survive the upcoming statewide primary? Governor Deal is ticked because his former lawyer turned lobbyist didn’t secure the payoff, he dislikes Cagle, and he doesn’t have to run again.

    If all of these anonymous “business leaders” cared about improving the overall business climate of the region, they would encourage Delta to stop trying to kill a second airport and to stop fighting the Open Skies agreement. They won’t, of course, because that would take real leadership and the courage to stand up to a real corporate bully.

    But, hey, the water is always wet. It would be fun to see any of the above names try to enter either the Republican or Democratic primaries. Crushing embarrassing defeat always makes for a good story or two.Report

    Reply
  6. atlman says:

    Georgia needs a governor willing and able to transform our educational system with a network of competitive admission magnet schools for the college bound and a massive investment in vocational schools for everyone else. Do that and 20 years from now Georgia will have the #1 economy in the nation per capita.

    And you could do that with a fraction of the money they want to waste on transit and Amazon incentives.Report

    Reply
  7. Libby says:

    The business community could get creative and coalesce around a Democratic woman and see what happens. At least they would end up with someone who is smarter than any of the Republican men who are running.Report

    Reply
      • atlman says:

        Tom are you one of those people who pays absolutely no attention to Atlanta’s economy, infrastructure, schools, pensions/budget and public safety:

        A) the 25 years before Kasim Reed when all were a mess spiraling out of control
        B) now when all are improved and some are legitimately good/great

        Or are you one of those who is willing to acknowledge those but claim that Reed had nothing to do with them? As if it wasn’t Reed who hired the new police chief, school superintendent and MARTA chief? As it wasn’t Reed who sold a bunch of economically distressed crime magnets to developers, and was smart enough NOT to waste city resources on keeping the Thrashers and Braves? As if it wasn’t Reed who chose to hire Bain to audit city finances and functions as his first act of mayor (in addition to hiring a lot of experts from Bain in vital city posts) and tackled the public employee pensions issue – and other difficult financial issues – that previous mayors had avoided? As if it wasn’t Reed who hired a Beltline chief that was actually willing and able to make real progress on the project and found the funds to do it with from a combination of private fundraising and existing city revenue sources (rather than waiting on the state and feds to provide the money)? And as if it wasn’t Reed who FINALLY ended the decades of acrimony between the A) the city and the suburbs and B) the city and the legislature/governor’s office that existed back when it was a one party Democratic state and only got worse when the suburbs, legislature and governor’s office went Republican (adding overt partisanship to the barely covert racial divide) by openly seeking a good relationship with Deal and the legislature, and allowing Deal – who entered office as a very weak scandal ridden figure – to strengthen himself politically by doing things like allowhing Deal to share in credit for the jobs that the city was attracting and even going before the national media and covering for the governor during snowjam?

        You are right. That stuff either A) didn’t happen because Atlanta was always on the positive trajectory that it is on right now or B) it happened on its own, dropping out of the sky, with Reed playing no role in it whatsoever. Which is it?

        I remember how during the beginning of Reed’s tenure – and in fact well into his tenure – the suburbanites and even out of towners were (gleefully) claiming that Atlanta was going to become the next Detroit, and the states and the feds were going to have to step in and shut down MARTA, assume control of Hartsfield, Grady Hospital and the APS and put the city’s finances into receivership.

        Atlanta as the next Detroit, from a center-left source and a right wing one:
        https://atlanta.curbed.com/2013/3/13/10264618/do-atlantas-woes-warrant-detroit-of-the-south-description

        http://www.wnd.com/2013/03/suburbs-secede-from-atlanta/

        No one talks like that anymore. I wonder why that is. Does anyone think that the pre-Reed Atlanta would have had any shot at Amazon in the first place?Report

        Reply
  8. BPJ says:

    Governor Deal leaves office next January, and his prospective Republican replacements have made it clear that the Georgia Republican Party will be bad for business. It’s time for moderate business people to take a look at Stacey Evans (and other down ballot Democrats such as John Barrow for Secretary of State); vote in the Democratic primary for a change.Report

    Reply

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