Opinion Columns & Blogs

Thanks, Team Deal, for jobs well done

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has accomplished much in eight years as the state’s leader.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has accomplished much in eight years as the state’s leader. AP file

With Georgia poised to swear in a new governor for the new year, expect to see a flourish of tributes to our current governor, Nathan Deal. There is a long list of accomplishments that can be noted during his eight-year tenure as Georgia’s head of state.

He’s the governor who took over during the depths of the recession with two days’ worth of cash on hand in the state’s checkbook and is leaving with about $2.5 billion in the rainy day fund. Double-digit unemployment is now at historic lows and under the national average. Teacher furloughs have turned into the first full funding of the Quality Basic Education formula in decades, if ever, depending on who does the calculations.

Georgia remains “the number one state to do business” according to industry trade publications, as economic development announcements continue throughout the state. We’re investing roughly an extra billion dollars per year in transportation infrastructure and taking transit governance and planning seriously. Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be that of criminal justice reform, where Georgia has become a national model for common sense solutions with respect to sentencing as well as rehabilitation and re-entry.

These and other accolades are well deserved because they were well earned. But this column isn’t about Nathan Deal as much as the team he assembled to execute his agenda. Gov. Deal would be the first to tell you that none of his accomplishments are uniquely “his.” He’s worked well with the Legislature on crafting legislation that matched both his agenda and that of the general assembly at large. Some initiatives were his and some legislative. It’s been a team effort.

The head of the governor’s team is his long-time Chief of Staff Chris Riley. He’s been part of the governor’s staff since the early 1990s, when Deal was a member of Congress. He’s been the governor’s sole chief of staff for eight years, an unusual move in an era where it can be quite lucrative to be the sitting governor’s former chief. Riley has been steadfast in his commitment to both Gov. Deal’s agenda and to Gov. Deal.

For those unfamiliar with the inside baseball of political offices, the chief of staff most often has to assume the role of “bad cop.” Elected officials must smile and say “yes” as often as possible to promote the positive side of the office. It most often falls to the chief to say “no” to those that just need a few dollars from the state budget for their pet project, an appointment or other favors that government can provide.

Capitol insiders have long been aware that Riley has had the full authority to speak on behalf of the governor, and he was quite comfortable with his “Dr. No” reputation. Someone, after all, had to make sure that major agenda items were funded while balancing budgets and adding surpluses to rebuild the once empty rainy day fund.

With this great power has come great responsibility, and thus, a portion of the credit for the Deal legacy. It should be a bit of a change from the usual grumbling and animosity from those who too often found themselves on the receiving end of one of those “no’s.” Gov. Deal has earned a legacy, and Chris Riley deserves mention and public credit for his role in that.

There are many others on the team, too many to list here. Yet Economic Development team headed by Pat Wilson and his predecessor, Attorney General Chris Carr, have earned a shoutout. The penny pinching from the governor’s staff begins with Office of Planning and Budget Director Teresa MacCartney. And those of us in the press fondly remember the less than understated quotes from former Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Brian Robinson, as well as his equally helpful if a bit more restrained successor, Jen Talaber Ryan.

In the end, Gov. Deal will be remembered as a great leader of this state. I tip my cap to him, to Chris Riley, and all of those who have worked in the Deal Administration over the past two terms to bring us the Georgia we have today.