Governor Nathan Deal modestly completes his second term with a high and enviable approval rating from voters in both political parties, with some even suggesting a re-visitation to the topic of term limits for Georgia’s chief executive in our state Constitution. I’m among those who’ve become an out-spoken fan of this quiet, servant leader who understands the importance of building consensus, listens well and often to inside and outside counsel, and who has led Georgia to many of our greatest and most lasting successes.
But surveying and summarizing the Deal legacy is no easy task. Not since Governor Zell Miller has any Georgia governor, in either political party, left so many lasting marks and benefits to our state. Miller created the HOPE scholarship, and sold Georgia on the lottery to finance that as well as an ever expanding Pre-K early education program. Additionally helming the state through its Olympic years, and cap-stoning his public service with a term in the U.S. Senate, Miller had set the gold standard for his successors in the Governor’s Mansion. I’d say Deal has grabbed that brass ring.
Deal’s economic development track record is unmatched. And thankfully this job growth was not only felt north of Macon and in metro Atlanta, but across the state as well. Strengthening an initiative started by his predecessor, Governor Sonny Perdue, Deal made Georgia not only the “Hollywood of the South,” but the most popular television and film production market on the planet, second only to the entire nation of Canada.
Deal’s election brought an introduction during a deep recession to nearly empty fiscal cabinets (with less than two day’s state payroll on hand), and while assisted by a broad and strong recovery, Deal leaves office with more than $2.5 billion in reserves and Georgia with the highest possible bond ratings by all three major ratings agencies.
And yet, it may be the education and criminal justice arenas where the Deal touch will leave the most lasting marks.
Seeking to become Georgia’s ‘Education Governor,’ Deal added $167-million additional dollars during the most recent Fiscal Year budget for Georgia, fully funding the Quality Basic Education Act. Though his attempted amendment to the Georgia Constitution to create Opportunity School Districts did not pass, he has continued to make resources and state expertise available to challenged schools and school systems who are willing to accept the help, regardless of zip code, school demographics or local politics. Rapid expansion and creation of charter schools as well as a series of opportunities for vouchers into private education have also expanded options for students and parents across the state, especially intended to assist families with children in failing schools.
Deal is the son of educators, as well as married to one. Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal has made literacy and visiting with and reading to elementary school children her passion. Despite facing down some not insignificant health challenges over the past few years, our First Lady made visits to 1000 schools across each Georgia county and all 181 public school systems.
Though happy to see Georgia remain under GOP leadership and control, Deal is reluctant to offer much in the way of direct advice for his successor, Governor-elect Brian Kemp, other than to suggest we find more ways to embrace our commonalities and that his party focus a bit less on social issues or wedge concerns which may divide us.
Deal began his public life as a prosecutor, and ends nearing four decades of public service more as a healer, delivering criminal justice reforms which also are resulting in the lowest incarceration rates in modern history for non-violent offenders, including a double-digit reduction in the incarceration rates of black men. Deal’s creation of Accountability, DUI and Drug Courts are also regularly producing amazing success stories of recovery and rehabilitation as well as returns to productive, working and tax-paying lives of citizenry, which on occasion move this Governor to near tears. This shared celebration and sense of accomplishment are also part of the Real Deal legacy.
Nathan Deal is not a man of great stature, but these gains and his shadow are casting long marks for others to attempt to emulate and follow, and it may be decades before we see anything quite like him again here in the Peach State. God speed to you sir, as well as to Mrs. Deal. Mission accomplished, and well done.