Gov. Nathan Deal reflects on the past as he looks to the future

Published 4:43 pm Friday, December 14, 2018

My recent conversation with Gov. Nathan Deal covered a lot of ground. In last week’s column, we talked about some of his accomplishments over the past eight years of which he is most proud, including criminal justice reform that is a model for the nation. We talked about the HOPE Grant, a scholarship that pays 100 percent of tuition for students to attend technical colleges to learn skills that are in high demand for Georgia’s workforce in 17 programs of study from automotive technology to computer technology, welding, practical nursing and even movie production set design.

To say the program has been a rousing success is an understatement. 88.4 percent of students who receive the HOPE Career Grant find job placement in their fields upon graduation, and 99.2 percent overall find job placement of some kind upon completion of the certificate.

We talked about The REACH (“Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen”) Scholarship Program, a needs-based mentorship and scholarship program started in 2012 to encourage middle school students from low-income families to graduate from high school and be prepared for the 21st-century workforce. Students and their parents/guardians must sign contracts agreeing to maintain the minimum GPA, have regular school attendance and meet with mentor-coaches.

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For those in the program, unexcused absences have dropped by 30 percent and disciplinary infractions have dropped by 60 percent, on average. This year, the REACH Georgia Program will serve 134 school systems and nearly 1,800 students.

We talked about the Legislature finally funding Georgia K-12 Quality Basic Education Act after its initial passage more than three decades ago. We talked about the fact that the governor has appointed more judges to the bench in Georgia that any governor in the state’s history. We talked about his veto of the religious freedom bill and the restoration of the tax cut to Delta Air Lines and a bunch of other stuff.

Finally, it was time to talk about the man, Nathan Deal. For the first time in over 40 years, he isn’t going to be in the political spotlight. For the first time since 2010, he isn’t going to be the chief executive of the eighth most populous state in the nation.

What is he going to miss most? “I can tell you what I won’t miss,” he said, “I won’t miss the crisis phone calls. I will enjoy the absence of pressure for a change.”

How about hobbies? The governor said, “I don’t play golf and I don’t do much hunting, but I like being out on the land. I love to fish.” He said he might even try his hand at fly-fishing. He should have plenty of opportunities for that. North Georgia has some spectacular trout streams and some spectacular trout to go with them.

Does a boy growing up in Sandersville think that someday he might like to be governor of Georgia? “Not at all,” he said, “There was a period of time that I intended to be a veterinarian.” That changed when his mother got him involved in public speaking and he became so good at it that he and a group of Baptist teens won the state competition at Mercer University.

Gov. Deal said the environment at Mercer appealed to him and that led to his attending school there on a program which allowed him to fast-track into the study of law while still completing his undergraduate work. It was also at Mercer where he met fellow student Sandra Dunagan from Gainesville, whom he married and where he began his law practice while she taught school.

He was the county’s first full-time assistant district attorney, struck a lot of juries and got to know a lot of folks. When the opportunity came to run for state Senate in 1980, he took it and won. He served that part-time position for 12 years, becoming president pro-tem of the Senate. “Driving back and forth from Gainesville to Atlanta over those years was very wearying,” he recalls, “so when Congressman Ed Jenkins announced his retirement, I decided either get in politics full time or get out.” Deal won the congressional seat in 1993 and kept it until resigning to run for governor.

Deal is most enthused when talking about the role the first lady has played in his life and his career. As first lady, Ms. Deal has visited over 1,000 schools in all 180 school systems in Georgia’s 159 counties, promoting early childhood reading, as befits a former schoolteacher. “Sandra is not much for sitting around,” he said. “She likes to remind me that she travels the state by car and not by helicopter like the governor,” he laughs. “I remind her she could probably run for governor and win.”

I have known every governor — some better than others — since Ernest Vandiver in the late 1950s. I have liked some better than others. I like Nathan Deal. He is a good man who has been a good governor and done good things for his state, quietly and with dignity. May he enjoy his well-deserved retirement. He has earned it.