Georgia Senate GOP taps Kennedy to lead, affirms Jones's power

The sun sets behind the gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Georgia Senate Republicans are shaking up their leadership while reaffirming that they won’t strip power from incoming Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who has been serving as a state senator.

Republicans meeting behind closed doors on Friday chose Sen. John Kennedy of Macon as their nominee for president pro tem, the second-ranking member of the chamber. The full Senate will vote on the post when it convenes for a new term on Jan. 9. But with Republicans holding a 33-23 majority, Kennedy is likely to win that vote.

Senators also voted to let Jones assign senators to committees, name committee chairmen and assign legislation to committees. Those powers, along with presiding over debate in the Senate, help a lieutenant governor shape legislation. Lawmakers took back some or all of those powers in 2003, when a Republican majority wanted to curb Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, and in 2010 when GOP senators were unhappy with fellow Republican Casey Cagle.

“Working together, we’re going to create more opportunities that lift up every Georgian and make our state the best place to live, work and raise a family,” Jones said in a statement of the new leaders.

House Republicans will meet Monday to nominate a new speaker after David Ralston stepped down. Reps. Jon Burns of Newington and Barry Fleming of Harlem are the two declared GOP candidates after several others endorsed Burns.

The pro tem position is influential in setting the Senate’s agenda and shepherding legislation.

In choosing Kennedy, who had been chair of the majority caucus, GOP senators passed over other candidates vying for the position including Mike Dugan of Carrollton, who had been majority leader in the last term under President Pro Tem Butch Miller.

Kennedy was handed the sensitive issue of redistricting and delivered maps that secured Republican majorities in the House and Senate and shifted one of Georgia’s congressional seats into the GOP column even at a time when Democrats had become much more competitive and the state’s electorate had become increasingly nonwhite.

Dugan and Miller were liked for their friendliness, but some conservatives found them insufficiently orthodox on some issues. It’s unclear if the switch to Kennedy will mean a change in substance or style in a Senate that has consistently been more conservative than the state House.

Kennedy said in a statement that Republicans acted “to handle our internal business and move forward together,” saying his caucus will prepare for the 2023 session “with common purpose and a renewed sense of optimism for the results we can deliver on behalf of the people of Georgia.”

A Gainesville Republican, Miller lost a Republican primary bid for lieutenant governor to Jones, a Jackson resident who is heir to a large petroleum distribution business and founder of an insurance agency. With a platform of cutting taxes, fighting crime and improving education, Jones shrugged off Democratic attacks over Jones’ efforts to deny Georgia’s electoral votes in 2020 to President Joe Biden.

Miller and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan had stripped Jones of his committee chair position in 2021 over Jones’ post-election activities and a failed attempt to oust Miller.

Republicans promoted Steve Gooch of Dahlonega from whip to majority leader. They chose Jason Anavitarte of Dallas as majority caucus chair, Randy Robertson of Cataula as whip and state Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan as vice caucus chairman. All three are new to leadership and Brass, like Jones, had his chairmanship stripped in 2021.

State Sen. Dean Burke of Bainbridge was reelected as caucus treasurer.

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