Why you should care

Because cooler heads have prevailed for decades in the Deep South’s corporate capital, but that could change.

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Two hushed voices come in fuzzy, but clear, over the audio. One is Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL and recently ousted gubernatorial candidate, whose iPhone is secretly recording from the inside of his coat pocket. The other is Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, nine weeks from what appears to be his coronation as the Republican nominee for governor. The 52-year-old has worked over two decades in politics to get here. Now one of Atlanta’s most prominent power players, Cagle is far from his upbringing praying with his single mother in a trailer in the north Georgia foothills. His Southern accent escapes as he utters the words that might destroy everything he has worked for: “This is not about policy. This is about politics,” Cagle says.

As are most sins and charities committed beneath Georgia’s Gold Dome, where Cagle has worked since he was elected to the state senate at 28 years old, serving there from 1995 to 2007 and as lieutenant governor since. A former Georgia Southern cornerback, the 6-foot Cagle’s lithe frame and round-rim glasses have seen control of the Capitol turn from conservative Democrats to more conservative Republicans — part of the blue-to-red shift across the American South. Having overseen a political revolution as well as an economic one since the Great Recession, the business-minded politician became the smart-money, establishment pick for governor. At least, he was.

With a Republican primary field of five whittled to a July 24 runoff between Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the result will have huge ramifications for the state with the nation’s ninth-largest economy, home to Fortune 500 companies including Home Depot, UPS, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola. Cagle hoped to ride into a November matchup against Democrat nominee Stacey Abrams by marrying suburban and rural support. “My philosophy has always been, particularly in a general election, ‘You compete for every vote,’” he said, detailing his initial plan in an interview with OZY in January. “You have to build a vision around where you want to go.” His pitch was based largely on his humble roots and aspirational tale. “We don’t have a candidate here who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth,” says Mike McNeely, a former Georgia GOP vice chair and minority outreach leader. “His strength is people. His record is looking out for the small person,” adds Rochelle Robinson, the first African-American mayor of Douglasville, an Atlanta suburb.

He argued earlier this year that the establishment label wasn’t damning because he got results.

Georgia has a history of pragmatic, business-minded governors. And Cagle said he wanted an agreeable platform, emphasizing expanding rural broadband access; community and technical college reform; and tax incentives for small and big businesses alike. He envisioned a world where small Georgia towns left behind by the innovation economy could return to prosperity. “Imagine if you have innovation hubs,” he said, and “if all of a sudden, those individuals who went off to college can come home.”

However, his aspirational campaign ran smack into political necessity. Facing pressure from his base, Cagle pledged last August to sign religious liberty legislation similar to a law that roiled Indiana, a law he previously opposed and that critics say is discriminatory. He drew national headlines in February when he killed tax legislation benefiting Delta after the airliner ended a partnership program with the National Rifle Association, tweeting “corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

Meanwhile, his attack ads grew increasingly nasty, says Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University in Atlanta: “Cagle’s anti-Kemp advertising is kind of Trumpian in a sense that he is saddling Kemp with a couple of nicknames.” (In one, Kemp is called “untrustworthy” and “incompetent” while a farmer cocks a shotgun and tells him to get off his porch.) The tactics worked: Cagle took first place in the primary vote, leading Kemp by nearly 14 percentage points.

But that was before the secret recording. The controversial policy Cagle was discussing? A proposal to nearly double a tax credit cap for private school scholarships. The politics? That despite it being bad in “a thousand different ways,” as Cagle admits in the audio, he supported it anyway to keep a super PAC (political action committee) from funneling $3 million to one of his opponents.

The recording, combined with a New York Times report that he bought an Atlanta condo at a discount from a state capitol lobbyist, have placed Cagle firmly in a political purgatory of his own making. “That’s been his legacy for almost a quarter-century, is pay-to-play politics,” says Ryan Mahoney, the communications director for Kemp. Meanwhile, Cagle’s right turn on social issues mars his crossover appeal and could threaten his standing with big business. “I don’t want to demonize Cagle before he gets into office, but have a backbone,” says Democrat Liliana Bakhtiari, a former Atlanta city council candidate who says Cagle’s religious freedom promise and spearheading of an anti-LGBT adoption bill are examples of him kowtowing to the religious right. “Is it worth sacrificing the opportunity to be an international business hub,” she asks, “for a viral tweet or a headline?”

Although Cagle declined a more recent interview request, he argued earlier this year that the establishment label wasn’t damning because he got results — the rebound of the state economy, the creation of 46 “college and career academies” from the ground up, as well as a robust healthy kids program and improving graduation rates in state schools. His campaign manager, Scott Binkley, denies that the condo arrangement — in which Cagle purchased a one-bedroom apartment from well-known energy lobbist Terry E. Hobbs for 24 percent lower than its appraised value in 2008 — was a sweetheart deal. “The condo lost value for years after that purchase — dropping $50,000 according to the county,” argues Binkley, although Cagle did eventually sell it at a 29 percent profit last year. Binkley also says the recording did not reflect Cagle’s feelings about the passed legislation: “He was having a purely political conversation in his campaign office.”

Regardless, Cagle is long gone from the rolling green hills of Gainesville, the humble north Georgia county seat of his birth. Although Cagle signs litter the yards of the Baptist church, the auto repair and the Regions Bank, there remain few other markers from his time here. The business he started in 1986, a small rental company called Jean’s Bridal & Tux of Class, is long gone. And the local library’s only records of Cagle? His wedding announcement to his high school sweetheart, Nita Pinson, mother of his three sons, and newspaper clippings from his 2006 upset victory, the final one declaring him “a local boy made good.” If Cagle is to still deliver on that promise, he will have to convince voters he has returned to his roots — and is serving people, not politics. He’s running out of time.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described a controversial proposal to double a “charter school” tax credit. The bill was actually related to a tax credit for private school scholarships.

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