ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp painted an upbeat verbal portrait of the state on Thursday while acknowledging the challenges of the pandemic in his annual "State of the State" speech to the Georgia General Assembly.
"The State of the State is resilient, and we will endure," Kemp said to applause, avoiding superlatives often used by other governors while talking up successes.
Kemp started his speech with a moment of silence for the 10,000-plus people who have died from COVID-19 in Georgia. Kemp didn’t mention Georgia’s challenges getting vaccines distributed – the state has lagged behind much of the nation -- but instead highlighted that 283,000 Georgians have gotten inoculated.
"There are 283,000 reasons for hope and optimism. We will get through this. We will get there, together," Kemp said.
And Kemp defended his emphasis on partially opening the state’s economy -- which he says has kept unemployment down and drawn new businesses to the state.
He admitted that Georgia’s health care system, in general, has faced challenges.
"Georgia has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country, and many who are insured are struggling to pay for care," the governor said. "In the midst of a pandemic, that is, quite honestly, unacceptable. More action is needed."
After Kemp finished, Democrats pounced on that note.
"It’s not what he talked about, it’s what he didn’t talk about," said state Rep. James Beverly (D-143rd Dist., Macon), the House Minority Leader. "It’s, why haven’t we expanded (Medicaid under) the Affordable Care Act?"
Democrats have been after Republicans to expand Medicaid for nearly a decade. An expansion likely will not happen as long as Kemp is governor.
Kemp struck some bipartisan tones during his State of the State address. But deep down, there were fragments of a Republican campaign speech -- approaching the 2022 campaign, when Kemp plans to run again.
"I don’t believe it’s ever been more dangerous or more challenging to wear a law enforcement uniform," Kemp said, referring to what he called both "peaceful" and “destructive” protests last summer.
"My message is clear: in Georgia, as long as I’m governor, we 'Back the Blue,'" Kemp said, echoing themes struck by Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue during their Republican U.S. Senate campaigns. Both incumbent senators lost runoff elections to Democratic challengers less than two weeks ago.
Kemp also touted the state’s economic record during the pandemic -- holding down unemployment rates, creating new jobs and keeping the state budget mostly solvent.
"No furloughs, and no widespread layoffs of state employees," Kemp said. "And, I might add, no new taxes to pay for it all."
For Democrats, the governor’s message sounded like campaign-style hardball.
"If the question was do I think the governor is going to be more conciliatory, the answer is no," Beverly said.
The governor spent much of his speech talking about both creating jobs and expanding internet access in rural Georgia -- a region of the state that gave him strong support during his 2018 campaign.
Kemp will be counting on that support once again when he runs next year.