ATLANTA — While the everlasting 2020 election seemed to dominate the headlines for weeks on end, the backing of President-elect Joe Biden was not the only history-making political moment in Georgia throughout the year.
Lawmakers faced an upended state budget after the pandemic shut down the economy, Georgians marched the streets for weeks calling for the General Assembly to address hate crimes which led to new legislation and former Congressman John Lewis’ death left a legacy for the Peach State to uphold.
Here are our top 10 political stories of 2020, in chronological order, curated by Statehouse reporter Riley Bunch:
The qualifying period for state and congressional lawmakers to run for office was arguably the first glimpse of the bitter GOP feud that started with U.S. Congressman Doug Collins crashing a press conference for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler after they both announced their bid for Johnny Isakson’s open Senate seat.
The two essentially ran a primary ahead of the general election, smearing each other on the campaign trail, before voters sent Loeffler and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock to a runoff.
But March 2 also marked a small moment at the Capitol that few would have anticipated to mark the end of an era. Congressman John Lewis filed his reelection paperwork to run again for the seat representing the 5th Congressional District.
The day after the reenactment of Bloody Sunday when Lewis walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the civil rights icon said he “never considered not running” for reelection despite his pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Lewis died July 17.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s ceremonial office was standing room only on March 3 when he announced the first two coronavirus cases had been confirmed within Georgia’s borders. Still, little was known about the virus and no one would have expected the impact it would have on the world.
The General Assembly suspended indefinitely March 12 and would not reconvene for months.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was praised for his bipartisan decision to send an absentee ballot application to every one of Georgia’s 6.9 million active, registered voters ahead of the presidential primary after the pandemic created health risks at the polls.
“This global health emergency showcases exactly why we must embrace solutions that ensure every voter can cast their ballot and have their vote counted without risking their health or that of their loved ones,” Raffensperger said.
Little did he know that his decision to encourage absentee ballot voting would be used against him by members of his own party after the general election when the voting method overwhelmingly aided Democrats in their presidential victory.
Raffensperger became a nationally recognized figure after the general election, when he refused to support the false narrative pushed by President Donald Trump and some Georgia Republicans that the election was riddled with fraud.
Before Georgia made national headlines during the general election, it was the subject of criticism and praise for Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His decision to reopen the state’s economy — which benefitted the economy while putting lives at risk — was the first time Trump pushed against the Republican governor he endorsed in 2018.
The Peach State did not meet the gating criteria outlined by the White House to begin reopening some shuttered businesses and Kemp continued to buck the idea of a statewide mask mandate. Despite the intense criticism from heath care leaders and Democrats, many Republican state lawmakers backed his choice, citing struggling Georgia businesses and record unemployment numbers.
After the brutal deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police and Georgia’s own Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick at the hands of three white men, Georgia residents took to the streets of Atlanta in solidarity with the mass protests that broke out across the entire country.
While the first days were marred by chaos and violence at the Atlanta intersection of Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Marietta Street outside of the CNN Center in downtown, protests slowly became more peaceful while the state upped its law-enforcement presence.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms went as far as placing a 9 p.m. curfew over the city but the killing of Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a Wendy’s further amplified the cries for state and local officials to address police brutality and social injustice.
Peaceful demonstrators were met with tear gas and rubber bullets during many of the protests in Atlanta. Multiple Atlanta police officers were charged after pulling two college students — who were not participating in protests — from their car and arresting them with excessive force.
The death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery — a Black man who was chased and shot by three white men — renewed calls for the state Senate to take up Georgia House Bill 426 — bipartisan hate crimes legislation that had been sitting in the upper chamber since last session.
Georgia House lawmakers had been pushing a hate crimes bill that was sitting stagnant in a Senate committee for more than a year. After more than a decade in the state without protections for individuals who were victims of bias-motivated crimes, the mass protests calling for social justice in Atlanta sparked movement of the bill and its eventual passage.
But the legislation did not pass without a battle. Senate lawmakers attempted to slip in additional protections for law-enforcement officers who are targeted because of their profession. The attempt sparked a bitter battle between lawmakers who wanted to show support for police and those who had long called for the passage of hate crimes legislation.
After back-and-forth between House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the General Assembly agreed on a final piece of legislation that was praised as a “defining moment” for the Republican-led legislature.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, dean of the House, championed the bill long before protests took place outside of the State Capitol.
“It would have been a sad day in Georgia if we didn’t pass this hate crimes bill,” he said.
In a decision that was eventually reversed, Kemp was adamant throughout the pandemic that mask mandates would not be made and despite his overarching stance of local control, in July, the Republican governor issued an executive order that barred local governments from passing their own mask mandates.
The move came after more than a dozen local cities and counties across the state took actions into their own hands and mandated that their residents wear masks to help curb the spread of the virus. Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was the first to institute a city mandate, stating he felt there “was no other choice.”
The jockeying between Kemp and local officials over masks was poised for legal battles which the governor said was not out of the question. But after intense criticism, Kemp loosened his restrictions and allowed for local mask mandates — with restrictions.
After the death of Georgia’s beloved John Lewis, his family, friends, civil rights icons, Martin Luther King's descendants and three former presidents paid tribute to the congressman at a funeral service in Atlanta and pleaded with Americans to uphold his legacy of “good trouble” — a term Lewis coined for his nonviolent activism.
The civil rights icon died at the age of 80 years old after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Atlanta, his adopted hometown, was his casket’s last stop on a celebration of life tour before being laid to rest next to his wife, Lillian, who died in 2012. At his funeral at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lewis was remembered as a "founding father" of a "better America.”
But as Lewis knew and wrote in an article published posthumously in the New York Times “the march is not over.” Leading activists and political figures framed his departure as an opportunity to renew the call for a better country. Lewis’ death came at a time the state and the country were entangled in mass protests and conflicts with the police.
For the first time since 1992, Georgia voters backed a Democratic candidate for President of the United States. After weeks of being in the national spotlight while votes were slowly tallied again and again and again, the state's tally of the presidential election was certified and finalized: President-elect Joe Biden had won the support of a majority of voters.
While the outcome may have shocked the country, Democratic organizers in the Peach State saw years of work pay off. Black leaders such as the late Congressman John Lewis, voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams and state Democratic Party leader Nikema Williams along with voter mobilization groups such as the New Georgia Project were praised for the efforts to register and encourage voters to participate in the democratic process.
The general election sparked a drastic split in the Republican party in Georgia. Supporters of the president echoed his baseless claims of voter fraud and slammed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger while state officials like Gov. Brian Kemp stood behind the elections official and made themselves the target of Trump's fury.
The general election determined that both contests for Georgia's two open U.S. Senate seats will be sent to a Jan. 5 runoff.
Incumbents U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will face Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock in races that will determine the majority hold of the upper chamber of Congress.
If Democrats are victorious, the U.S. Senate will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote and Democrats defacto control.
President Donald Trump's loss in Georgia and other states sent him into a fury, incessantly tweeting false accusations that Georgia's election was faulty. State Republicans had to choose a side: Trump's or democracy. Many chose the president.
But not only has Trump driven a political wedge between Georgia GOP members — Republican U.S. senators have called for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s resignation while state officials have remained quiet — but now the party faces the real threat that infighting could impact base turnout.
Georgia's Republican Senate candidates are up against the possibility that Trump's widespread claims could keep GOP voters from the polls.