To say that the 2016 legislative session might was a contentious one for Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus might be a bit of an understatement. In early February, Sen. McKoon went to the Senate well for a point of personal privilege to talk about the spat between Rep. Tommy Benton and Sen. Vincent Fort over the latter’s bill to eliminate Confederate holidays, and the need for everyone in the legislature to treat each other with dignity and respect.
The Senator’s passion for enacting a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Georgia came into conflict with the goals of House Speaker David Ralston, who was pushing for a more limited Pastor Protection Act. On the day the House moved to take up the bill, McKoon took to the well to talk about the need for stronger protections for people of faith, and tweeted his opposition to the bill. After it passed the House, the senator got into an argument with Terry Chastain, the Speaker’s attorney, and went to the well the following morning to address the issue yet again. Several days later, Sen. McKoon dropped a Senate Resolution in the hopper proposing a constitutional amendment to term limit the Speaker of the House. This did nothing to improve McKoon’s relationship with the Speaker, and also got pushback from Senate leadership, who had McKoon withdraw the proposed measure.
Of course, such activity does not come without repercussions. According to reports, the senator’s actions cost Columbus State University and the National Infantry Museum some $8 million in funding, removed from the 2017 budget at the last minute.
Are Senator McKoon’s crusades costing him support in the General Assembly and within the Columbus district he represents? On Sunday, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer published an interview with McKoon, balanced with comments from former spokesman for Governor Nathan Deal, Brian Robinson. In the story, which is well worth reading in its entirety, Sen. McKoon said that his three session push for religious liberty legislation was not a political stunt to build a support base of religious conservatives, but instead was a sincere effort that grew out of his conversion from Methodism to Catholicism. Robinson disagreed, pointing out that Sen. McKoon never met with the governor during the 2016 session to promote religious liberty legislation, and that was a sign that the Senator from the 29th wanted an issue rather than a a way to pass the legislation.
If McKoon is looking for a statewide run, Robinson said, he is going to have to appeal to many of the business interests he has alienated with the religious liberties legislation.
“It cost $400,000 a week to run television ads in the Metro Atlanta market, and I am telling you that you’re not going to raise the money you need by going to county party breakfasts on Saturday mornings,” Robinson said. “He got too cute on the last day of session with a bill that would subject Georgia’s biggest employers to class-action lawsuits. Not only will he not get help, he’s a target.”
“Brian makes an incorrect assumption that my effort to pass religious freedom legislation is some pretext to run for another office,” McKoon said. “I learned from my ethics reform fight that a successful model for getting a bill passed is raising awareness of enough Republicans statewide of an issue. That is exactly what I’ve done on religious freedom.
Senator McKoon continued to insist that he is motivated to pass ethics and religious liberty legislation because he sees such legislation as being important to Georgia. “I think I am doing my job,” he said in the Ledger Enquirer interview. “I’m far more fearful of having to live with myself after compromising my principles than I am of losing an election.”