In the middle of Georgia’s annual legislative session, the halls inside the statehouse are packed with lobbyists and lawmakers.
Most of them are older, white men, but Democratic state Rep. Brenda Lopez is not. Last year, she became the first Latina elected to the Georgia Legislature.
“Whatever perceived notions about what Georgia may have been even 10 years ago is not where we are today,” Lopez said.
As metro Atlanta’s population grows, it’s getting less white, and it’s getting younger.
The crowd here at the Legislature, Lopez said, does not represent who actually lives in the state.
“Georgia, and the South, is not changing. Georgia, and the South, has changed. It is a fact already,” Lopez said.
Lopez represents part of suburban Gwinnett County. Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016, the first Democratic candidate to do that since Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter.
Despite the state’s shifting electorate, Republicans still control the governor’s mansion and Georgia’s House and Senate by big margins.
There’s a new cause for bipartisanship in Georgia though, and for other state capitols around the country: the effort to lure Amazon’s second headquarters. It’s a new focus of the state leaders in Georgia, who often brag about the corporations they’ve attracted.
Many of the most conservative proposals at the Georgia statehouse have stalled recently, thanks to the lobbyists filling up the halls and the corporations they work for.
“They have a very diverse workforce. And a lot of their workers want to live in a progressive state,” said Tharon Johnson, a lobbyist who’s been working at the Georgia Legislature since 2012.
Johnson has seen companies like Delta, Coca-Cola and even Disney help squash efforts to expand protections for religious groups. LGBT activists have called the bills discriminatory.
‘Better Off Without Them’
Some conservatives worry that new businesses coming into the state speed up demographic and political changes, and they’re not concerned about turning away corporations.
“If the mere fact that we want to reinforce our religious freedoms means that a company does not want to come to Georgia, then we’re better off without them,” said Republican state Sen. Michael Williams, an underdog candidate for governor this year.
Metro Atlanta is one of 20 finalists in the running to land Amazon’s second headquarters.
Williams said he worries the Seattle-based company will make Georgia more liberal and undermine what he calls the state’s culture.
Other Republican candidates for governor don’t share that view.
“I’m not worried,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said. “Georgians are conservative because Republican leadership and conservative principles have made our state great.”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he looks forward to welcoming any newcomers to the Republican Party.
“Amazon executives and employees from out of state will quickly see that our state’s growth, prosperity and undeniable success are a direct result of conservative leadership,” Kemp said.
“Government should not be in the business of preferring one company over another based solely on their executives’ political beliefs,” former state Sen. Hunter Hill said.
To make his point, Williams points to CEO Jeff Bezos’ donation to fund scholarships for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipients.
“When you talk about giving Amazon billions of dollars, and then the founder/CEO of Amazon is giving $33 million to education for illegals, there seems to be a disconnect there between what the values of Georgia are and a guy who wants to give away tons of money to illegals to go to school,” Williams said.
Williams supports legislation that would require driver’s license tests and ballots be printed in English only. Civil rights groups put bills like that on what they call the “Adios Amazon” list. Those measures, the groups and state Rep. Lopez said, just by being introduced hurt Georgia’s chances of landing the corporation’s new headquarters and the 50,000 jobs it promises.
“When, basically, do we stop shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to push something again for a Georgia that is no longer the Georgia that maybe some people might be referring to?” Lopez said.
Democratic candidates for governor welcomed the role Amazon and other corporations have played in debates about controversial legislation, like measures to expand legal protections for religious groups.
“I believe it is difficult to project the impact HQ2 would have on the state’s political leanings,” said former state Rep. Stacey Evans. “I do think that the conversation surrounding Amazon has already shaped debate around some key policy issues — such as RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act).”
Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams included attracting Amazon on a list of policy proposals she’s made a part of her campaign.
“By expanding Medicaid, protecting our workers from wage theft, recommitting ourselves to equality by refusing to allow discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedom,’ and increasing our investment in public education and college completion,” Abrams said, “both local businesses and Amazon can prosper in our state.”
None of the bills on the “Adios Amazon” list are likely to become law. Republican leaders say making Georgia attractive to companies is a priority, and that includes Amazon.
Johnson, the lobbyist, is an outspoken Democrat. But even he has praise for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other top GOP officials. Johnson says it’s not new in Georgia for business interests to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
“I think Amazon is just at the top of the list right now. We have been a state that has recruited many, many corporations here — many, many headquarters for so many decades,” said Johnson.
Even if it’s not Amazon, the hunt won’t stop. And as the flow of new corporations and people to Georgia continues, their influence at the state House and the polls looks set to keep growing.